The Turner Prize has gone north for the first time in its 27-year history – to the BALTIC contemporary art gallery in Newcastle. I’ve always wanted to visit this splendid converted mill and, by luck, I was giving a talk in Newcastle this week, so was able to see both. And the exhibition was free, too, unlike when it is hosted expensively at the Tate in London.
Trouble was it was the first week of opening, half-term and raining. Even late in the afternoon there was a shivering queue snaking outside the building. We joined it and stood under dripping brollies and hoods, stamping wet feet. Eventually, we were counted in and went up the shiny glassy lift – that apparently many visitors like to spend their time whizzing up and down the floors to get a great view of the city. And then another 10 minute wait inside before we were let into the first gallery.
I always find it is a bit of an anti-climax following the slow moving anticipation associated with long queuing. You expect a big wow when released and it doesn’t materialize because you are in the wrong mindset. It takes time to settle one’s sensibilities again.
As a consequence, the first three rooms were rather underwhelming. We read the blurb on the walls and tried to imagine the raison d’etre behind the installations. S’s 5 year-old daughter A – who had accompanied us on her scooter – played with them, innocently picking up some fake leaves, touching a ragged sweat shirt bin liner in a funny shaped bin, and tracing lines on the sugar paper of another. And quite rightly so; they cried out for being touched – yet the posted guards posture suggested it was verboten. Happily, little angelic A skipped through her touches, deftly without catching their eye.
The last room stood out for me by a mile. I do have a penchant for paintings these days and the ones in this space by George Shaw were quite breath-taking. My money is on this man winning; he paints rain-stained streets, derelict buildings, ghostly garages and other desolate, dull images that are a permanent feature on every estate, dotted throughout the UK. I could immediately connect with them – a run-down council estate in Coventry, a poor working class one in Watford – what is the difference?
The more we looked at Shaw’s paintings the more they revealed – his limited palette of humble Humbrol paints, the deliberate lack of any human life and a relentless stoicism that seeps into ones very sinew when faced with such void vistas each day. But there is hope in the journeys painted out of his childhood. What stands out in all the gloom is his delicious dash of humour, captured whimsically in his titles. My favourite, which did make me laugh out loud, was “Landscape with Dog Shit Bin”.
In the distance of the canvas one can see a tiny, brightly lit red artefact orifice that has become such a pervasive feature of our parks and streets, without us so much as noticing this has happened – taking over from the red BT phone boxes that used to reside on every street corner, and which by the same measure, have now virtually disappeared. This quirky reference to a new order, civilized society eases us out of the heaviness of life that spans the rest of the painting – there is a glimmer of light in the most unexpected place that helps us work out how to escape an otherwise mundane and melancholic world.