BEXHILL-ON-SEA, England — Liveness is a difficult quality to prescribe in a work of art. But to borrow a phrase from an obscenity trial, you will know it when you see it. This is especially true when the medium is painting. It is alive, yes, but it is not always so vital as in the current show, I Cheer a Dead Man’s Sweetheart, at De La Warr Pavilion. 21 painters line up for a nationwide survey, which curators David Rhodes and Dan Howard-Birt insist is nothing of the sort. And yet you wish this show was a definitive take on painting in Britain, as the results would fill one with optimism. Live painting is, here at least, notable for its looseness, its levity, its vibrant color and its variety.
This joy in paint is splurged throughout the gallery. You will find it in a layered kaleidoscope by Gary Wragg, or in Sophie von Hellerman’s swift and airy narratives, to name but two exemplary works. It is doubtless in the pair of delicate, intimate three-quarter length portraits by Alessandro Raho. And in one or two cases the painting has a genuine claim to be a living entity. Jacqui Hallum uses crystal-forming salts to give her compositions a degenerative look and feel. One of these is “Rest on the Flight,” which features an axe-wielding putti. It looks age-old, yet wry and of the moment.
Even at moments of colourlessness, this show remains amusing or elegiac. Phoebe Unwin uses tape to cut and paste the edges of her monochrome Copy Table (2013), while Christopher Le Brun brings greyness to life with his foggy and mysterious landscapes. Rather than a statement about painting, the curators offer a platform to think about painting. Says Howard-Birt: “We visited a lot of studios and we just wanted to see what artists were doing and what was live and, in some way, a show like this can never be comprehensive in its survey agenda”.
“It’s a particular perspective,” says Rhodes, “and we never intended it to identify any current trends in painting, or a scene. It was always meant to be an idiosyncratic collection of work.”
Howard-Birt admits some good painters have been left out, but you are likely to be just as surprised by the painters who make it in: “There was certainly no, you know, cohesion to some central thread to the show. We’re very catholic in the people we’re interested in”. The duo have also produced an early contender for quirkiest show title of the year: “I Cheer a Dead Man’s Sweetheart.” This is a line from a poem by A. E. Housman, but Rhodes explains where it fits with the medium of paint. Historical tendencies in painting are the sweethearts of various Dead Men.
“But there are certain people who carry on,” he both says and demonstrates; you can find artists in this show whose practice spans six decades, along with painters who are recently out of college. The outcome of this range is a show which feels as contemporary as they come. “Well, that’s just it,” says Howard-Birt. “Artists are contemporary, by the fact that they are alive and working.” And so septuagenarian John Wonnacott is a contemporary of millennial Joella Wheatley.
“It’s too easy for journalists, academics, museums to decide what is contemporary practice, and decide what is in or out,” he says, without rancor. But he compares the curatorial climate to the late 60s, when the conceptualist movement spent much of its energies policing its margins.
Instead, the pair met with artists at work, discussed their latest projects, and chose pieces they hope will evolve a conversation about painting in the UK. Howard-Birt mentions the recent Painting Now at Tate Britain and A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance at Tate Modern. Their regional show has a metropolitan agenda, but has allowed them to be honest about taste and subjectivity. “For me that’s a very important thing to acknowledge,” says Howard-Birt. “A curator is not just a passive or invisible force. We do act as filters and we do choose things and that’s a responsibility.”
“Taste is a very loaded term,” picks up Rhodes, “But I totally agree that curatorially we have a responsibility and the doors that we knock on are in some way governed by our existing interests.”
The curators divvied up the artist selection (Howard-Birt) and gallery hang (Rhodes) between them. “Working collaboratively was very successful for us,” the latter tells me, although vitality was a hard quality to programme for. “We only really realized [that] when the paintings came into the gallery and we started unwrapping them and putting them around the wall.”
“And quite surprisingly for a group show, everyone’s been very happy,” takes up Birt-Howard. “They were interested in the project, because they thought it sounded a bit nutty I think.” But artists, who “couldn’t quite get a handle on it,” are reported to still be very pleased with the results. And in one case, the venerable painter John Wonnacott told the team that a work he was never previously sure about had clicked into place in its new context.
Liveness may not be the only thing to look for in a painting, and the curators have sidestepped works that dealt with appropriation or quotation as “perhaps unhelpful to the general flow of the show.” If the result comes to bathe in sunshine and smiles, this is perhaps fitting for a whitewashed gallery on the south coast with a history of catering to holidaymakers. There are plenty of occasions to mourn a dead man’s sweetheart. So for now, why not cheer?
I Cheer a Dead Man’s Sweetheart can be seen at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea until June 29.