As mission statements go, New Works at the Walker Art Gallery is a powerful one. The new centrepiece exhibition feels like equal parts celebration, showcase and statement of intent – with works that cross a number of media, decades and forms.
There are nods to Liverpool, artists with whom the Walker has an established relationship such as Anish Kapoor and new artists; works that reinforce the Walker’s role as a national gallery of note and as an exhibitor of fine art, modern art, multimedia, sculpture and everything in between.
But while it would have been easy to go down the Greatest Hits route, courtesy of a fearsome catalogue or works, that would have run the risk of creating an exhibition that existed as a box-ticking exercise.
New Works has been carefully curated to provide a broad snapshot, but what has been left out must have been as important as what was left in. It’s a valuable reminder that not only does The Walker have a large collection in storage, but the collection is growing all the time.
“New Works is a celebration and it’s a mission statement in terms of our contemporary collecting,” says Head of Fine Art, Ann Bukantas. “In some areas there still is a perception that the Walker is about classical artwork, yet since 19877 when the gallery opened it’s been about contemporary artwork – the Walker has continued to exhibit modern and contemporary art and this is about looking back over the last decade or two at the works we’ve collected and to shout about the fact that we’re still doing it; the diversity of what we collect and how we do it.
“It’s a selection that represents what we’ve acquired but it’s also about how a gallery like The Walker achieves that and what aspects of contemporary art we’re focussing on and how that might relate back to the historic collections.
Acquiring new works means constantly updating what the gallery stands for: works that are political, personal, challenging and humourous can be found in the two gallery spaces. There are a number of themes here that intersect and build a narrative about the Walker’s past, present and future. And photography and drawn artworks are two areas the Walker is actively pursuing going forward.
The latter is prominently represented by Rachel Goodyear’s The Girl With Birds Inside Her, an animation of pencil sketches featuring a girl repeatedly regurgitating singing birds. It’s vaguely nightmarish but oddly affecting too, touching on themes of voicelessness and frustration but choosing not to attempt to contextualise.
Paula Rego’s abortion sketches are similarly unsettling, while local artist James Unsworth’s Dinner is Hogarth via Clive Barker, grotesque yet amusing. There is photography here too, including photographic prints by Wolfgang Tillmans and Jyll Bradley’s backlit panoramic photographs – an exploration of the fate of Liverpool’s famed botanical gardens, now dispersed to various gardens, hothouses and libraries around the country.
Female artists are well represented, in a nice mark of circularity to 2005’s The Rise of the Woman Artist exhibition; Louise Bourgeois’ Ears was a focal point of that exhibition and is present here too. Lubaina Himid donated her early, seminal piece We Will Be to The Walker – something of which Bukantas is particularly proud. There’s also another chance to see Sarah Pickstone’s Stevie Smith and the Willow, winner of the John Moores Painting Prize 2012, alongside several other works from the annual contest.
Fascinating too is Viral Landscapes by Helen Chadwick, which overlays huge photos of coastline with blown-up images of the artist’s own body cells; the piece is visually stunning but has a particular resonance in a time when HIV was changing the sexual landscape.
Alongside Yoko Ono’s Skyladders piece, last seen at the Bombed-Out Church, there’s a dress by Stella McCartney that does not look like a frivolous addition. It’s another nod to The Walker’s connection to Liverpool, also represented by Unsworth, Ono, Ben Johnson’s preparatory studies for his Liverpool cityscape and Bradley’s lightboxes. Additionally, Red in the Centre by Anish Kapoor, made during his residency at the Walker in 1981-82 and donated to the Walker by the Bluecoat, is an example of his early influences.
There are challenging works here too. A Sleek Dry Yell, and installation by Haroon Mirza that won the 2010 Northern Art Prize, goes to the very limits of what people might dislike about ‘modern’ art – an audio-visual installation with a video by Richard Strange. Brian Griffiths’ Bear Work Wear (black) – a sadsack of a bear costume hanging from the wall, with its imagined history, is another new media piece that is rather more playful.
Marcus Coates’ video installation, showing the artist as a shaman exploring the spirits within a condemned Liverpool tower block, is a real highlight, while a modern Ivor Abrahams confronts the visitor at the entrance, like a gauntlet thrown down. In a gallery renowned for its varied collection of classical sculptures, Head of Stairs is another indicator of the Walker’s intentions to add to its modern collections.
Bukantas is keen for visitors to the exhibition, especially those who are unfamiliar or sceptical of contemporary art, to see New Works as an opportunity to experience something different in a welcoming environment.
“I’d like them to at least give New Works some time because it’s The Walker that is showing it. The context in which some contemporary art is shown is insome very alien environments; we’re completely the opposite of that. The key thing that we want people to see is what we’re acquiring and what high-quality work is being produced by artists in the region and further afield – and how that links to the older collections we have.
“As with the John Moores artists and Anish Kapoor, for example, we are able to acquire their works just as they’re about to break as successful artists, whereas now they might be increasingly hard for galleries like us to collect. That’s why we’re acquiring some of the pieces we are now – it’s all about our legacy.
New work will be added to the show, which currently has no end date in sight, over time. For now there’s plenty to be going on with – something for everyone without being all things to all men.
Our favourites? Marcus Coates’ warm, witty and engaging Journey To The Lower World; Goodyear’s delicate, woozy animation; Stella McCartney’s dress, inspired by George Stubbs’ Horse attacked by a Lion; Bradley’s beautiful portraits and Unsworth’s nauseous screenprint. With such an all-encompassing exhibition there really is something for everyone – but don’t just take our word for it, see it for yourself at Liverpool’s very own art world in one city.
• Check out events related to New Works at The Walker over the next few months