REALITY Exhibition – Walker Art Gallery
This exhibition, lo and behold, deals with the concept of ‘reality’ itself, and our perceptions of it: consisting of a range of paintings devoted to the unravelling of day-to-day life through a variety of experimental techniques designed to make us rethink the mundane and commonplace objects and events that our minds usually pass over. On display at the gallery are “20th-century artists, such as Walter Sickert, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and LS Lowry”, as well as “contemporary painters including John Keane, Ken Currie, Paula Rego and George Shaw”. The common and unifying specification of these artists is that they’re all British.
‘Scenes from the Passion – The Path on the Edge’ (1997), George Shaw © Royal College of Art.
The first thing that ensnared me in the exhibition was a seemingly inauspicious painting by George Shaw named ‘Scenes from the Passion – The Path on the Edge’, which hung in a diminutive frame, showcasing an ordinary-looking path running adjacent to some characteristically English houses. I was instantly engaged by the uncanny effect it had on me, by evoking memories of my suburban childhood, of constantly hanging around, of waiting for something to happen. The painting has a photographic realness that, if stared at for long enough, becomes more real than any photograph ever could. Its special appeal lay in its universality, its ability to somehow perfectly depict a setting for the kind of unremarkable adolescents one finds in the backwaters of England, and the sorts of places in which your first cigarette in some nearby woods is all you can remember of a whole summer.
Some of the pieces were not nearly so subtle. ‘Spam Dragon’ by Alan Macdonald features a distinctly 21st century woman attired in the sort of dress one usually associates with a courtly period populated by gallant knights. Beside her a reptile is tied up, and a long-haired man clad in chained armour pops out at the corner, alongside a can of spam. Our associative processes are supposed to be defamiliarized, consequently making us question the neat categories we like to divide our experiences into. I languidly moved on.
The exhibition reached its epitome with Clive Head’s ‘Looking Glass’, a hallucinatory panorama of an average part of London on an average day. Head’s technique seamlessly melds a number of different perspective together as if a sequence of photographs – each taken as the photographer’s head tilts a few centimetres away from the preceding position – had been superimposed upon one other. Thusly forming a more accurate picture of how we actually view the world, as it straggles by from moment to moment, never really in the here and now.
The thread that seemed to connect everything together was a common rivalry the paintings displayed towards photography. In a world where we have the technology to instantly capture whatever is in front of us, the role of the painter is forever under scrutiny. What this exhibition helped to remind me of was that our way of perceiving the world is not the same as a camera lens’: our reality is choppier, much more subjective than a picture. Perhaps REALITY – and ‘reality’ itself – is not for everyone; one visitor’s verdict was declared damningly on a post-it note on the review board outside the gallery: “ANIME IS BETTER!”
Whether that’s true or not, I leave to you to decide.
‘Consulting the Oracle’ (2013), Caroline Walker (Detail). © Caroline Walker