Review: ‘REALITY: Modern and Contemporary British Painting’ at The Walker

Illuminations - Caroline Walker

REALITY: Modern and Contemporary British Painting
at The Walker Art Gallery 10 July – Sunday 29 November 2015

Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith, photographs courtesy of The Walker Art Gallery

REALITY, the current exhibition at The Walker, curated by Chris Stevens has big ambitions, seeking to explore 60 years of British painting with one simple subject – Britain. At first, the exhibition is a lot to take in, with huge canvases filling three rooms, comprised of work from those you’ve heard of, and work from those you haven’t. At times REALITY takes some unexpected turns, but some of the most obscure links are some of the most informative, showing snippets of ideas that have come from influential themes that have shaped modern life here.

This abstraction of the idea of reality is powerful, taking us into the personal stories and experiences of the artists. In some cases the paintings depict snapshots of real life, and in others they show idealised versions. One example of this, Caroline Walker’s Illumination shows us edited architecture, with selected actors, in selected clothes, and is about as far from reality as it gets in this show. But, and it is a very large but indeed, the painting depicts an ideal Britain; an ideal that has perforated our REALITY and become part of what we think we are as a culture – and what could be more real than that?

It’s not all ideas though, some are truly personal experiences, including Francis Bacon’s representation of his partner Peter Lacy, and Hockney’s crush Peter C. Both portraits of people significant to them, and in these cases, portraits that became significant to British painting as clear developmental points in both artists’ careers.

That is where this exhibition stands out, it is a collection of artists with majesty, and those yet to achieve it. Inside the gallery walls is an all-encompassing view of British art, not limited to a narrow theme, but connected by it. An exhibition that calls its audience to attention, to question whether British issues are issues concerning you and I, or, especially in modern days, global issues created by or affecting us. One Palestinian landscape gives us a memory of what Britain created during World War One through the eyes of John Keene, an official war artist, and provides a hint of responsibility.

As you enter the second room though, there is a sudden thud, as Clive Head’s Les Souvenirs Du Café Anglais, makes you question everything modern Britain is; a multi-perspective, multi-vanishing point, multi-subject canvas that introduces modern realities to the exhibition. And it works. Sat staring at Head’s portrait of Britain today, it is difficult to fault his statement. The falsification of experience as a result of our national insecurities raises a great deal of questions, and seems to be becoming a theme at The Walker, possibly as a legacy left behind by Martin Parr.

Why do we always hide behind brands, and behind the café, or bistro, or delicatessen. Britain does a great deal of things well, but finding a modern British identity in shopping arcades isn’t one of them. Tree, by David Hepher, on the other hand, shows a very urban, very British-ish landscape; the council flat. But depicts it ‘impartially’ as a visual only, not aiming to make any social comment at all – these paintings are simply a document of real Britain, and they do an incredible job. REALITY does a great job of tying modern Britain together through the eyes of observers, and of those involved.

For me, the success of this exhibition is its variety. There are the confident strokes of the past, shown as current, and as memory, and the shy, insecure representations of shy, insecure Britain. This all-encompassing history of 20th century Britain seems to be a huge success, if for no reason other than its collage of cult and personality.