Warwick Arts Centre

Kaleidoscope of colour or limited palette – exhibitions explore both

Two current Midlands exhibitions couldn’t be further apart in their titles. At the Mead Gallery at Warwick Arts Centre there is Kaleidoscope, Colour and Sequence in 1960s British Art, and at The White Room Gallery in Leamington is Black and White.

The Mead’s exhibition is a touring exhibition from the Arts Council Collection, and exhibition info says it “brings into focus the relationship between colour and form, rationality and irrationality, order and waywardness in art of the 1960s.”

The point is also made that the featured artworks include bold, artificial colour, and capricious shapes, but also a lot of order, sequence and symmetry.

Walking into the exhibition and looking across at the works in one sweeping gaze, the colours and varied shapes leap out, and the first impression is of some sensory room aimed at stimulating the senses, or even a large play area for children.

Richard Smith’s Trio from 1963 is an orange, yellow, blue and white oil painting showing his influence by American abstract impressionism. There’s also an inevitable op-art black and white work, Movement in Squares, by Bridget Riley from 1961.

A small painted steel sculpture is Anthony Caro’s contribution, and Thebes is the work on show by William Tucker, consisting of three triangular shapes in red, yellow and blue reflecting his work in the 60s on repeated units which must all sit on the ground.

Robin Denny’s Over Reach is a canvas with large straight areas of colour, and John Hoyland’s 15.5.64, named for a date, features bright colours combined.

Tim Scott’s Quinquereme is a mix of geometrically-shaped pieces of acrylic, and Philip King’s Point X is a large structure using squares, circles and triangles to create a symmetrical but also oddly shaped design.

All together there are works by more than 20 artists in this exhibition, spanning, as the publicity says, Op Art, Pop, Constructivism and New Generation sculptures. It’s interesting to read in the excellent exhibition guide what they were exploring and trying to achieve and ponder 50 years on if they achieved it. The exhibition runs until December 9.

Meanwhile in Leamington Spa, the White Room Gallery is staging Black and White, an exhibition bringing together monochrome works by a range of artists from the local to internationally famous. The items featured cover a range of media including etchings, photographs, silk screens, oils and lithographs.

It features amongst others a diamond dust limited edition print of Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, a large diamond-studded skull.

There’s also a print of Lamp and Lung Ch’uan Ware by Patrick Caulfield, an artist I always associate with bright colours and it’s hard to see this work of a lamp and vase in shades of white and grey.

Antoni Tàpies’s L’apocalisse del opera is a strange abstract in black and white, and there is a Picasso print of Henry VIII After Holbein, a startled looking image which is an unusual one to be associated with Picasso.

There’s a Rachel Whiteread work, Ringmarks, showing wine glass-type marks on laser-cut plywood.

Locally-based artists who feature include Horace Panter, with one of his Robot series in monochrome, and photographer Ray Spence’s Reflection of a woman reflected in glass. Tim Southall who has exhibited at the White Room before is showing a Venice sea and landscape with lots of detail.

It’s a show of some interesting works, though linked only by their use of black and white, and does rather leave the visitor crying out for more colour in the world outside.


The Human Document makes engrossing study of suffering and desperation


Photographs of people facing despair and suffering, decades and thousands of miles apart, make up the engrossing exhibition The Human Document.

Subtitled The Photography of Persuasion from 1930s America to Present Day, the exhibition at the Mead Gallery, is based largely on works shown at a 1962 New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Bitter Years.

This used 200 images taken in the 1930s by a group of photographers working for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme, with the aim of proving to better-off Americans the desperate state of rural communities and the need for the New Deal programme.

During the Second World War 70,000 prints and 170,000 negatives were transferred into the Library of Congress in Washington (and many are now available to be downloaded).

This exhibition shows many of the images from The Bitter Years exhibition, alongside photographs by contemporary photographers also documenting sides of life that would otherwise remain hidden to many people.


The American photographs are fascinating. All small and black and white, they show an unimaginable life. In the first image inside the door, by Arthur Rothstein, two wagon wheels lie in a pile of dust in front of abandoned farm, making the point that the resident of the shack behind isn’t going anywhere useful on their cart any more. Rothstein’s other images include an animal skull on cracked ground, and a withered crop. He also showed people being forcibly moved from living alongside a road to land between the Mississippi and the levee, and abandoned furniture of those on the move.

Marion Post Wolcott’s Old Negro shows a miserable man picking at a thread on his worn clothing. Ben Shahn has captured images of destitute Ozark people in Arkansas, including a girl clutching a damaged doll, itself wearing rags, and a little boy cuddling two kittens, his clothes as ragged as the those of the doll.

Dorothea Lange’s many images are some I kept returning to. She has photographed a sharecropping family on the move, mum in a bonnet clutching her baby, a sad little boy and anguished father.

She also pictured black cotton pickers, who worked from 6am-7pm for $1, and the image is hung next to another of hers, showing a fat white plantation owner with his car; the documentary and persuasive nature of the photographs is important to note too.

However it wasn’t as simple as black vs white; a white tenant family’s home is shown, a plain bed on the porch of a house propped up with bricks. Lange is particularly good at capturing images of young mothers, old before their time, trailing across the country with their husbands and children in search of any sort of better life.


Her photograph of the 32-year-old ‘migrant mother’ of seven children, Florence Thompson, pictured (above) with a baby and two young children in a pea picking camp, became a famous image, her tough life leaving her looking more like 45, and is included here, as well as a fascinating interview with Florence in the accompanying free catalogue. Despite her incredibly hard life she lived to 80, though her own mother had made 108.

Lange also photographed an old woman in Kern County migrant camp in California, her only comfort a rocking chair in an open-fronted tent.

There are countless images here all showing homelessness and suffering seen many times around the world, including of course now on the daily news.

The works by contemporary artists are mostly also from the west, and show a side of life missed by many. Three sets stand out.

Chris Killip’s photographs from the north of England from the 1970s-90s, show bleak back streets in Tynemouth, and what appear to be travellers but are specifically sea coalers, people who harvest then sell washed-up coal. Their messy camp and a little girl playing with a hoola-hoop next to a burnt-out fire and wrecked furniture document a difficult way of life at the time.

Paul Graham’s colour collection, Beyond Caring, is made up of covertly-taken photographs of people in social security offices. Fed-up faces, and bored body language dominate here. People forced into a community in the offices where they don’t communicate with anyone.

Richard Billingham’s Ray’s A Laugh series are painful for the knowledge they feature his own family. His dad falls from a chair in their cramped flat, or glares at a cat hissing on a cabinet cluttered with ornaments. His mum hand feeds a kitten, and his brother licks yoghurt from the lid of a basic brand.

Different times, and different viewpoints set the more recent works apart, but it’s a show not to be missed for work by talented photographers capturing images from the times they lived in, and looking to tell a story to others.

* Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, until December 10.