Beyond the looking glass

Transparency, Walker Art Gallery, until 18th June, free

It’s weirdly easy to forget that artworks are meant to be looked at.

If that sounds stupid, think about the last time you spoke to somebody about art – what was the context?  Were you describing an emotional response?  Debating the financial value of art?  Defending a contemporary piece against the charge of being “rubbish” based on its social or political context?  So much conversation around art isn’t actually about what’s in front of you.

Transparency allows for all the points mentioned about, but it’s also asking: what are the different ways we look at things?  What are we actually seeing?  And the importance of space and clarity really shines through.

Ruth Claxton

The show takes its title and completely runs with it.  As well a some literally see-through artworks, the other associations the word “transparency” could have are also explored.  One of my favourite pieces in the show is Ruth Claxton’s Nest (Turquoise Loops).  My eyes enjoyed moving around the loops and reflections of the sculpture, the gaps contributing to a feeling of light and ease.  Hannah Starkey’s Mirror – Untitled, September 2015 is about – well, mirrors – but also perception, and how rarely we see the full picture.

Elsewhere, artists use transparency’s quality of nothing to play with what the audience sees. Works like Howard Kanovitz’s Projection and Emily Speed’s Build-Up are enjoyable to look at, but there’s an added layer of enjoyment in the way they play with levels and depth, making the works less concrete.   Others use technology to adjust what we see – is there more, or less, reality in Idris Khan’s Rising Series…after Eadweard Muybridge multi-exposure photographs than in our own perception?

Idris Khan

Transparency is mostly built from the Arts Council Collection.  This is a national collection of artworks with no permanent home, which can be borrowed by art institutions.  The purpose of the collection is to be able to bring art to different places and audiences, to get more people to engage.  But as well as showcasing great works from the Arts Council Collection, the Walker has its chance to show off too.  The pieces from their own collections which they’ve used to completed the Arts Council loans are very effective.  I spent  quite a while exploring Colin Reid’s glass Sculpture.  It’s nicely positioned to play into the themes of surrounding ACC pieces, but enticing enough on its own.  And over at the juxaposition of Michael Craig-Martin’s A Glass of Water and Damien Hirst’s Relationships, the Walker’s Craig-Martin piece comes out on top.

Michael Craig-Martin

As well as what you look at, Transparency places an admirable emphasis on making you, as the viewer, think about how you see.  Most of the Walker’s exhibitions are in the back room, with the further reading section feeling tucked away & easy to ignore.  But with Transparency, the resources and engagement materials are in a wide open space by the entrance/exit.  There’s  drawing response areas, books for further reading, and clipboards to take around with you.   As I started Messy Lines to try to get more people to think about art, I am obviously an enthusiast for this emphasis on engagement.

Another thing which is crystal clear in this show are the explanations of each section of the show.  It’s easy to read what the curators are trying to do, and quickly understand how the artworks relate to each other.  This is an important point – many people I know have a view of contemporary art as something you have to think about, rather than enjoy looking at.  In Transparency, I really felt that the intellectual qualities of the artworks were well-explained, and so visitors will have more time to spend on the viewing experience.

I hope that doesn’t sound off-putting – this exhibition is hugely enjoyable.  If you think about the exhibition as storytelling, this gives an excellent narrative about the different ways artists can work with transparency just as much as with materials.  If you think you don’t like or understand contemporary art, Transparency gives you a clear guide to what it’s doing in these contexts, without being dictatorial.  This is a show which is about seeing, and is meant to be seen.  Make sure you do.

Featured image: Rotterdam Relief, Toby Paterson




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