Jordan Baseman, Ken Currie and 100 Years of the Laing

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Who Is The Laing Art Gallery For?

The Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle Upon Tyne celebrates its centenary with a new set of exhibitions. The exhibits sit together disjointedly in a way that one of them, Lonesome Town by Jordan Baseman, questions in terms of where identities should be placed.

Jordan Baseman's Lonesome Town

Jordan Baseman - Lonesome Town - Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Upon TyneA drag artist stares you down, waiting for the right moment to begin. Suddenly he/she breaks into a rendition of Lonesome Town. His/her voice is dispassionate and dispairing. The effect is thoughtful rather than genuinely emotional. The video is unremarkable but contemporary enough to demonstrate that the Laing Art Gallery acknowledges the present. So is that why it's here? Is it part of a program to be relevant? Or was this video chosen because the drag artist is from Newcastle? Or is this a claim that Newcastle is a lonesome town for people with broken dreams? In fact, why this work is here at all is the question that can be asked about everything else currently on show too, for the Laing has difficulties with its identity that is well testified by Baseman's forlorn singer. Just who exactly is the Laing Art Gallery aimed at?

Confused? You will be..

The current mix of shows sitting alongside Lonesome Town includes an historical account of Edwardian Newcastle; two displays from the Laing's permanent collection, one with no stated or visible connection between the works, and another curated by locals; recent paintings by Ken Currie alongside work by other artists apparently picked for no better reason than their being alive; and a Private Eye sponsored show of work by the satirist William Hogarth.

What appeals to one punter seldom appeals to another. Trying to attract anyone and everyone all at once weakens each show's impact and dissuades future visits. The only discernable intention in exhibitionary hotch-potch is desperation. The message reads like a scatter-gun plea for an unidentified audience. Watching the visitors walking around in their supermarkety daydream reminds you of those times when you forget why you've walked into a room.

Ken Currie and His Contemporaries

Ken Currie - First Light of Day II - the Laing Art GalleryThis may sound completely disparaging, but a lot of what's on offer is very good, just badly placed. Ken Currie's paintings have a sensitivity towards victims of violence that is empathic and refreshingly unsensationalised. His figures may or may not be dead. They float in a calm after the storm from man's inhumanity to fellow man. They form a tranquil point for reflection on what it is to be alive. They carry such weight as to demand a space on their own. But no. They breathe their studied air alongside incongruous pieces by Chris Ofili, R B Kitaj and Frank Auerbach in what becomes a scrum of famous names instead of a meditative testimony to healing.

Attention To Detail?

There are smaller-scale problems which also add to the confusion. In the same Ken Currie room there are some Marcel Breur chairs. It's only when you consider their Bauhaus origin isn't contemporary that you realise they're not part of the show. Of course, no chair placed in a gallery is free from its associations - it is a sign that can be read or misread - but Breur's hardly sink into the background. They are radical pairings of tubular steel and leather. They are massive 20th century design icons. They are too noticeable to be incidental objects in a gallery. This is an oversight that shows a want for attention to detail. And it is alas not isolated.

Jordan Baseman's video is installed in a hall with massive light spills from either side and above it. Dominating the artworks in the foyer is a huge and bright abstract by the late Gillian Ayres. Enjoy it if you can view it without squinting from the lamp above it that is angled outwards. And this lamp illuminates... guess what? A Patrick Heron or other West Country formalist painting perhaps? No. Edward Jeffrey's Art Pottery from 1932-34. Surrounding these are equally incongruous works at least 4 of which are without any labelling. Across the floor hang some war paintings. Que? The labelling for one of these lies at 45 degrees, having partially detached itself from the wall. Perhaps it is trying to escape?

And why not? Escaping from the foyer is easy. You simply walk out through their shop which sells... guess what? Glassware, cushions and other craftware placed alongside... yes, you've guessed it - a rackful of Art Monthly, the contemporary art magazine for avante-gardists everywhere.

Enjoy these Edwardian games with your family and friends - at 100 Years of the LaingOther Exhibitions at the Laing

However, you may be tempted to stay for the remaining shows, each of which raises its own questions in respect of the Laing's mixed identity.

Edwardian Newcastle - 100 Years of the Laing is a diverse affair. Artefacts range from a Lepidodendron (a tree fossiilised in local coal) to a telephone from 1900 to tram tokens. But social histories are difficult to push in the age of museum interactivity. Is this the rationale behind the piece entitled Enjoy these Edwardian games with your family and friends?

From The Vaults 13 displays work from the permanent collection curated by people recovering from drug and alcohol problems at a residential home. Their recovery process is reflected in works showing peace, distress, containment and departure. Is the From The Vaults series then a gesture towards finding out how the Laing's audience thinks?

Hogarth - The Election Paintings and Prints is a triumph, and the pick of the bunch. Packed with scurrilous filth, it includes Hogath's contemporaries and British satirical cartooning right up to Steve Bell's reduction of John Major to a pair of burning underpants sinking in the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament. There are nice touches like short Election Facts notices to give historical context, and an actual ballot box from 1872 along with its legal history. You can't help but wonder why the Gallery's overview isn't this together?

The Next 100 Years?

A legend welcomes the Laing's visitors with: "The strange location and rather muddled current arrangement of the Laing Art Gallery are due to its origins". This is half-right. Muddled it certainly is, but claiming this is due to its origins denies any responsibility today. The Laing Art Gallery needs to decide on who it's appealing to. When it does this, it then needs to address those detail problems. And it'd better get its skates on. The Baltic Flour Mills opens as a huge modern art gallery with millenium funding in March next year, so the Laing's next 100 years, if it indeed sees them, will be fiercely competitive.

Jordan Baseman - Lonesome Town - 14th Sep 2001 to 21st Oct 2001

Ken Currie and his Contemporaries - no dates available

Edwardian Newcastle - 100 Years of the Laing - 15th Sep 2001 - 13 Jan 2002.

From The Vaults 13 - Works chosen from the permanent collection by Phoenix House residents - 15th Sep 2001 to 11th Nov 2001 according to one notice or 11th Nov 2002 according to another.

Hogarth - The Election Paintings and Prints - 6th Oct 2001 to 6th Jan 2002.

Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle Upon Tyne - 0191 232 7734.

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Review copyright Jeff Lee 2000.
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