Thanks for the memories – the year in art in Coventry and Warwickshire

So, time to raise a Private View glass of probably-questionable wine to the last days of 2013, and look back at another year.
To those who complain about Coventry in particular being a cultural desert it’s worth pointing out again that I’ve filled 52 weeks’ worth of columns with reviews of art exhibitions, plus short bits about art-related activities, and longer pieces and interviews on this blog. Yes, not all the exhibitions may have been world class but there’s a lot going on around here and new quality artists keep emerging.
One of the best bits about doing the column is going to many of the private views, or opening nights, and also experiencing some other whacky one-offs.

I started the year as part of the Mead’s exhibition Workplace, which offered people the chance to use a computer and desk for a couple of hours in the gallery while people looked round – that was entertaining. Later in the year at another Mead opening of an exhibition with a Buster Keaton-related theme there was the rather startling site of a young woman artist throwing herself off a scaffolding tower onto cardboard boxes.
This year several visitor attractions have got more involved with showing art as an added extra; the opening at Warwick Castle where Canalettos went on show in their original home, with candlelight and canapés, was fun. Ryton Organic Gardens showed several artists’ works amongst the plants. Two trips to Ragley Hall were great, the house standing majestically on the hill, and the stables being used as studios where enterprising Dawn Harris is working as artist in residence and has also held two exhibitions by various artists.
The second of these trips though produced my equal first for ‘most ludicrous art experience’ of the year. Finding our way from the Hall to the stables in the pitch dark was funny at first, then less so as we found ourselves stumbling around in the grounds with the massive stables staying elusive, and then found people had followed us to oblivion too. The other winner was an architecture walk around Coventry with the author Owen Hatherley, organised by the LGP gallery in Jordan Well, Coventry. Unfortunately clashing with the turning on of Coventry’s Christmas lights it promised a lot, but Owen had to compete with bands, fairground rides, a train pulling families through the precinct and the whole thing was timed to end with the showing of a film in Millennium Place, which meant the last bit was literally done at a run – by some anyway. Then the film wasn’t playing, but a brass band were …
More odd but fun times were had visiting several varied studios at Warwickshire’s Open Studios, which offer great free outings. I’d already met George Wagstaffe and Michala Gyetvai at the Ragley opening, and they exhibited together at George’s home, his sculptures and her textile works completely different and somehow working together because of it. I’m looking forward to their exhibition at the Michael Heseltine gallery in the new year.
Other highlights – interviewing Louise Wilson who with sister Jane showed Unfolding the Aryan Papers, a beguiling film installation work at the Herbert earlier in the year, and seeing them give a really interesting talk at the gallery; meeting Jo Gane when she was exhibiting at the Roots gallery in Coventry, several years after first meeting her in Birmingham. Her domestic archaeology exhibition was fascinating, and she exhibited with Caroline James who highlighted lost delights of Coventry.
Adrian Palka investigated further from home, in Siberia, for his installation as part of the Coventry Peace Festival which was varied and illuminating.
Back at Roots in the autumn I met Avril Moore, who had attended the Slade from 1951; we had a chat and she told me she’d wanted to organise her own retrospective rather than someone else doing it after she was dead; poignant words as she died suddenly just weeks later. I was sorry I only got to meet her that once.
Coventry University stays important in the city’s art world for many reasons. Lecturer John Devane won second prize in the BP Portrait Award, and exhibited in Rugby where it was a little disconcerting to see the subjects of some of his portraits wandering amongst them. The university degree show was as varied as ever, but of the works that stood out I included Jack Foster, and it’s interesting to know that as well as classmate Mircea Teleaga he will be having an exhibition at the Lewis Gallery in Rugby in the new year.
Jack follows in the footsteps of Matthew Macaulay who was once artist in residence there, and I met Matthew at several different venues where he has exhibited his own and other people’s work. And now he’s secured an Arts Council grant for more arts development work in Coventry in 2014, which has to be good news.
On holiday, I ended up at a kiln opening in Pembrokeshire, where sculptor Adam Buick revealed dozens of his moon jars. It was a chaotic scene where we sipped wine in a farmyard while children and dogs ran wild and I wondered if I’d ever make it back to St David’s on the bumpy track, but it was a lovely event to have attended.
Slightly nearer to home, the exhibition of works by Pauline Boty, a sadly neglected pop artist, was great as was the book to accompany it, and it was good to visit Wolverhampton’s impressive gallery again. Compton Verney in Warwickshire was a delight to visit as ever, especially for the summer landscapes exhibition which offered us some unseen George Shaw’s amongst other things. At Rugby, Pip Dickens’s Japanese-influenced exhibition was a highlight, and their openings are memorable for the quality nibbles. Nuneaton’s Museum and Art Gallery carried on quietly sometimes throwing in a great exhibition, such as the excellent old English photographs of John Gay, and the current Matisse cut-out lithographs, and at Leamington the frequently-changing main collection is as good a quality as the changing exhibitions.
There has been some continuity and change amongst the small galleries this year. The White Room in Leamington has held fewer exhibitions, but the openings are still good fun, especially the recent one for the Bridget Riley prints exhibition. Roots gallery in Coventry has come and gone, but I hope that central exhibition space is put to use again soon. In Leamington there was change at Gallery 150, with former boss Gerry Smith opening up new artists’ work and exhibition space almost opposite. Mick McCormick is battling on showing local artists’ work in Dunchurch. Lanchester Gallery Projects have been doing something different to all the other local galleries, but I gather that’s all going to change in the new year.
So, cheers to the artists and gallery owners and managers for a fun 2013, and looking forward to hopefully much more in 2014. And if you haven’t ventured out to many exhibitions yourself – take a look and be pleasantly surprised.



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