By Vick Jones.
With my morning lectures finished, and some hours free before I had to return home, I fancied a cultural dive into the world of Art. Armed with a street map, like a tourist in a foreign city, I went in search of the sparsely-signposted Whitworth Art Gallery.
The entrance is so grand that, when I arrived, I found myself whispering to the receptionist “I’ve just come to look around.” Desperately avoiding the ever-so-knowledgeable guide, who was asking a nearby couple how the painting they were admiring “spoke to them”, I did what any lone student would do when lost in an alien environment. I scanned the gallery map for the cafe.
Sitting in a cafe that was far more of a restaurant than a would-be Costa, I ate my blueberry and almond frangipane and drank my coffee. This was an eatery of choice, a place for ladies who lunch, a gathering-place for those who enjoy a selection platter of mezze, hummus and marinated olives. You know the type of place: where fish fingers are considered a delicacy because they are preceded by the term homemade and succeeded by a price tag of £12. Or where a burger is deemed to be a gastronomical pleasure because it is a.) chargrilled, b.) features Keen’s West country cheddar and c.) is very pricey! No, this was not a student’s paradise but, nevertheless, the cake tasted good.
Allowing myself to relax, I stopped caring whether or not I was in a place where I belonged, abandoned my concern over the meaning behind the abstract art, that I didn’t even remotely understand, and had a look around.
The gallery had the silent lull of a library. When I opened my eyes to the amazing textile work on display, it was then that I saw the appeal. For an unaccustomed art observer, the textile work comes as a surprise. Expecting a range of paintings and pictures, I found an enormous, intricate tapestry, entitled The Upper Class at Bay by Grayson Perry, that was both ingenious and innately witty. This piece of work has to be seen to be believed:
Where did he get these ideas? How could he visualise something so tongue in cheek and then transfer that image from his mind onto, not merely paper, but a tapestry created from wool, cotton, acrylic and silk? This is talent. This is skill. I loved it.
Indeed I loved it so much that later, at home, I looked up Grayson Perry and found that he is a Turner Prize-winning artist. The Upper Class at Bay is one of six tapestries that he has produced to illustrate taste and social class. I also found that this particular piece is a transtextual, drawing reference to the painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews in Thomas Gainsborough’s famous portrait of the landed gentry (c. 1750).
The Arts Council website explained Perry’s work:
“Whilst the couple who represent new money look on, the tweed suited stag, representing an old land owning gentleman is being hounded by the dogs of tax, social change, upkeep and fuel bills.” (www.artscouncilcollection.org.uk accessed 14/10/2015)
In the same room, was a life-size model of a woman in the most ornately-adorned dress I’d ever seen. I’m sure that an art student could certainly give an analysis of the meaning of this piece of work that would put it into context and breathe life into the model before me. But, from an onlooker’s perspective, it was merely beautiful.
I was in awe of these artists whose minds worked so creatively that they were able to both conceive and produce such beauty. Art is more than I imagined it could be for a visitor such as myself.
In the centre of the gallery is a greenhouse with opaque acrylic panels, illuminated from within. The windows feature quotes, thoughts and voices from unnamed women about feminism. The pitch of the greenhouse features a pane expressing the words “everything was so clear then.” A brilliant pun on the frosted panelling. I spent time, reading every quote and thinking again about the genius of literally illuminating the voices of women through three-dimensional form. It is a tremendous work of art. So much has been expressed and there are so many quotes to be absorbed.
My trip to the Whitworth taught me about my naive viewpoint, the limited perspective of having only ever witnessed two-dimensional art. I have never seen textile art or work such as I found in the centre of the gallery. It was inspiring.
Within a gallery, the clock stands still, the solitude and the hushed silence allowing you time, an almost heady release from the manic traffic speeding by outside. No one rushes you, no one disturbs you, no one expects anything from you. It is a new form of freedom that I have stumbled upon. A place to find out more about yourself, see what sparks an interest for you. There is no doubt that, in a place with such diverse artistic displays, some corner, some wall, some room within the maze, will strike a chord with you. Pick an afternoon, time you have free, go and explore. With free entry, you have nothing to lose but a lot to gain.