Review: Public View at Bluecoat: A Love Letter

Public View: Bluecoat at 300. Photo Tony Knox

Review: Public View at Bluecoat: A Love Letter

Words, Leyla Gurr

Bluecoat kicks off its 300th year in style this February with Public View. A uniquely curated collection of work from over 100 artists. All drawn from the last 50 years of exhibitions from central Liverpool’s oldest surviving building. The show is on display from 4 Feb – 23 April 2017 but I went down early to take a tour of the space and see how the exhibition was shaping up.

Perhaps a bit keen off the mark, I arrived ahead of schedule and was shown into the gallery while staff were still putting the finishing touches to the displays. Far from distracting, as you might think, the sound of hammers and chatter in the air added a surprisingly informal feel to the morning. It was intriguing and somewhat comforting to know that even Artistic Director’s like Bryan Biggs still get hands on in the set up process.

The attention to detail that the team were putting into their final prep was impressive. There was even a woman armed with a tiny paintbrush, covering scuffs on the white walls around the pieces. All has clearly been planned with the care and attention it deserves.

The usually deferent atmosphere of an art exhibition settled slowly as people filtered out over the course of the hour, but Public View could easily take up your entire morning. The first room to the left is commanded by a recording of Yoko Ono‘s Music of the Mind, performed at Bluecoat in 1967. Ono’s public notoriety serving as a gateway to the exhibition.

In the same room, pieces from a similar era are displayed, this first space being the only one shaped by chronology. Works by Don Mckinley and Sam Walsh catch the eye in particular, perhaps for their intriguingly dark undertones when compared to Ono’s lively performance playing out on screen nearby.

The rest of the show has a more free-formed feeling. Sculpture, print, expressionist and pop culture pieces are mixed candidly with each other. The cloistered area connecting the different rooms has an impressive display of kitschy Malcolm Garret posters, a few spaces down a small untitled cartoon of a skeleton watering a mushroom cloud by Brian O-Toole stands in stark contrast. The second room is large and holds two evocative pieces by Pat Whiteread to the right as you enter the first doorway, definitely worth close scrutiny for their splendid detail.

Towards the back of the exhibition is an area facing out onto the street. The room seems to have a theme, several works revolve around the idea of social engagement and tackling community issues. Some wonderfully moving portraits by John Hyatt capture faces from a dole queue and there is a striking collection of work by Ann Whitehurst beside them. These prints highlight the issues of disability access within Bluecoat itself. Self-criticism and soul searching go hand in hand with celebration to make this a very grounded anthology of the last hundred years.

After several laps of the exhibition the stairs presented themselves. Upstairs, the room is dominated by what at first glance appears to be a medieval etching of a church. On closer inspection however, this is a work by Adam Dant and arguably my favourite piece of the show. The Dissolution of the Call Centre is one of the most detailed pieces on display. Filled with tiny cubicle workers rebelling in a cathedral-like room, basking in rays from the heavens inlaid with gold leaf. It’s positioning in the furthest room was wise. I could have stared at it all day and still found something new to look at.

It’s an impressive feat to collate a collection of work that can keep someone wandering around such a seemingly small space for so long. Every corner you turn shows something new, I easily took six or seven laps of the place before I felt like I had seen enough.

The aim of the show seems not to be charting the history of Bluecoat. Nor is it to impress upon the public how important or grand the place is. Public View is much more like a love letter, personal and touchingly devised. A nod to the past and all the artists that have worked with them to build what Bluecoat is today, and a toast to the future and the artists yet to come.