Review: Public View at Bluecoat: Why it Matters

Bluecoat Director, Bryan Biggs at Public View: Bluecoat at 300. Photo Tony Knox

Public View at Bluecoat, until 23rd April

Words, Julia Johnson, Messy Lines

Happy birthday Bluecoat. 300 is quite an age to reach: it makes it the oldest building in the city centre, and even older that the United States of America. Such a long history, coupled with its reputation as a platform for the cutting-edge and contemporary, gives Bluecoat quite a story to tell.  Right now, and to kick off their anniversary year, that story is being told through Public View.

I’m hesitant to use the word ‘retrospective’ to describe the show, although that’s what it is: a look back at the work of 106 artists who have exhibited here, mostly in the last 60 years. But this exhibition does more than just celebrate the past: it’s a testament to Bluecoat’s story and mission, but by including brand new and updated artworks, also to its future.

The galleries appear to be arranged loosely into themes: art about politics, spirituality, identity.  Choosing which artists to include in this show – 106 out of thousands – must have given the curators a few headaches, but they’ve done a sterling job. The pieces chosen cover all modes of artistic expression; from performance to painting. It’s not a history lesson though. Rather, snapshots of the ways artists have chosen to explore ideas.

One of the most striking aspects of the show is its timelessness – you’d be pressed to date most of the artworks. Bluecoat may keep itself at the cutting edge of the art scene, but that doesn’t mean simply succumbing to trends. Indeed it’s interesting to observe how artists repeatedly turn to the same themes for inspiration, no matter what the era. It’s why art and artists are so important; they are constantly providing the rest of us with new ways of interpreting and discussing the issues in life.

Which artworks could be said to be “the favourites”, then?

On opening night the big draws seemed to be the film of Yoko Ono’s 1967 performance Music in the Mind, and Sean Halligan’s Bluecoat Circumstancia. Their popularity – the Big Name, the local recollections – is easy to understand. But amongst the rest every visitor will have their own favourites, even though some pieces are bigger, louder or shinier than others. The Bluecoat often does this in its exhibitions: present a myriad of artistic styles, but leave judgements on value and aesthetics to be made by the audience. Public View is no different.

Public View celebrates the mission and history of Bluecoat without being self-absorbed. The diverse, relevant and accessible art on show demonstrates why it matters as an institution, and also makes the case for its continuing existence. We need artists to keep making art, and Bluecoat to keep giving them an audience. Enjoy your birthday, Bluecoat, and we’ll see you in the future.