Refractive Pool: Contemporary Painting in Liverpool

Refractive Pool: Contemporary Painting in Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, until 8th January 2023, pay what you think

You might know about how I’ve followed the Refractive Pool project almost since its inception, how I wrote a big piece for Bido Lito about their 2020 symposium and what it suggested about the state of the arts in the city. I’ve also commented on many of the individual artists who feature either on this site or on my Instagram. So obviously, I’m hugely in favour of them having a big exhibition in a major gallery, and can’t deny that I’ve been looking forward to this since it was announced. But I’d still be honest and tell if you if I was disappointed with the results. I was not.

Gary Sollars

The key is that every artist has the space be to be recognised for themselves. Credit to the Walker for giving this so much of the gallery, for it wouldn’t work so well otherwise. This is a group show where the only links – geography and medium – are ones around which it would be wrong to create too many comparisons or connections. So here, everybody’s got loads of wall space and the gaps between each artist are wide, and welcome for it. It nurtures the feeling that each artist has room to properly express themselves independently – literally, spaced away from – what anybody else is doing. The curation plays its part here too; there’s been no attempt to divide up into sections like “figure painters” “abstract painters” etc, once again avoiding comparisons. Layout instead feels like it’s been picked just on what might look best next to each other, and this is to nobody’s detriment.

Either from online or in person, I’m already familiar with the work of many of the artists included here. This doesn’t make Refractive Pool at all boring – rather it allows me to be able to admire the way it has been used by both artists and curators to create a snapshot of what they’re about. This sounds like it could turn out badly – too brief – but in fact this is the best I’ve ever seen some of these artists displayed. Take Brendan Lyons’ illusionistic recreations of plastic bags – not a million miles away from those included in the last John Moores prize, and yet in my view they work so much better displayed like this, feeling much more settled in their corner. Or, being mostly familiar with Millie Toyin Olateju’s work from Instagram, the overall effect of the familiar style at this scale was highly impressive and made sense to me in a whole new way.

A free-standing abstract painting placed in the middle of a gallery. Black and grey geometric shapes with a neon yellow l-shape in the centre. From Refractive Pool.
Gareth Kemp

When the exhibition claims to give an overview of what’s going on in the city, it’s fair to think about how selections were made and who’s been included. Medium is obviously part of it – painters only – and I guess another part is ensuring a range of styles are covered. This is the thing: it’s an overview, not a comprehensive survey. I’m familiar with so many of the artists here because they have established practices in the city, and it doesn’t feel like anybody’s been thrown in without thought or included unjustly. Whatever the precise mechanics of selection, I definitely feel that it achieves what it sets out to do.

Especially when it comes to the point about ensuring that many styles are represented. Something I do like a lot about Refractive Pool is that it feels very honest about what the nominal “contemporary painting in Liverpool” is. The forms and subjects here aren’t about playing into current trends, nor is the show trying to make any sort of statement about Liverpool being a certain way artistically. If anything its message is that the city is a broad church, a place where artists create whatever work they’re inspired to. (Though there is a kind of – what to call it, unsettling-ness? – within much of the work here – art which wants to not only take us out of the familiar but also to drag us into stranger places. Befitting of the way of the world perhaps, but also hardly unusual for what art does).

The point is that I really think there’s something here which everyone will like, and every artist is done the justice to allow audiences to appreciate it. As the centrepiece to date of a project which seeks to champion artists in Liverpool, this is a worthy celebration.

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