Review: Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842

Ken’s Show: Exploring the Unseen
Tate Liverpool, until 17th June 2018

A Guardian four star review and header that says: “Sublime choices from a non-expert puts the pros to shame” – is a great review, but a bit of an unfair poke in the eye to gallery curators. However, Tate Liverpool has pulled a canny move in celebrating 30 years of Tate Liverpool by handing the curating reins over to its long-serving art-handler, Ken Simons.

On one hand, it’s a thoughtful touch to give thanks to an employee who has dedicated 43 years of his life to the Tate. On the other hand, it’s also a great marketing tack to encourage individuals who don’t usually attend galleries to engage in something that is relatable and accessible. The exhibition video sets about reinforcing this man-of-the-people approach by showing Simons going about his day job making a cup of tea and you can’t get more matey than that.

The show comprises a cross-section of 30 well-chosen pieces that have a definite thread and narrative. Ken Simons has worked at Tate Liverpool since it opened in 1988 and it is interesting to see curating from a different perspective. His core choice piece is the sculptural Phillip King – Within (1978-79), which is a balancing act of locked together found pieces of wood, slate and metal. A piece that would in practical terms allow Simons to get inside the head of the artist from a perspective that a professional curator would never be party to. Whereas the curator proper relies upon the eye, the aesthetics, and the knowledge from an objective hands-off point of view.

As with King’s work, the other pieces in the show revolve around the central core of the unseen spaces in our environment. The spaces in between, spaces imagined, spaces seen through a porthole and spaces overlooked. A connection that came by quite naturally, but obviously from a subconscious and informed perspective. You could sum Simons’ choices up by the fact he epitomises the behind-the-scenes person who works in those very unseen spaces. In the special places Joe-public never gets to see.

The sublime Rain by Howard Hodgkin is whatever and wherever the viewers’ imagination wants it to be. The suggestion of rainfall on a window leads to a flash of green, of grey and illusory sky. Stand back and look at it long enough and the narrative expands. The viewer creates the story and it’s a story which far transcends the canvas. Rothko’s unseen spaces allow the imagination to mine the blackness beneath. While Ken’s favourite; Graham Sutherland’s, Entrance to a Lane (1939) is all about the fleeting glimpse, the essence of country, a joy appreciated against an underlying darkness at the imminent outbreak of war.

The exhibition spans from 1765 with Richard Wilson’s, Lake, Ruin and Pine Trees to almost present day. There isn’t a piece in the room that doesn’t deliver.

The Guardian heading may have taken a cheap click-bait pop at curators. But it’s not comparable. Curators do their job to a very strict brief. Whereas Ken’s Show is a fun, celebratory event that should be kept in the perspective it was designed to be – curating for pleasure.

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