Where is everyone? The last two weeks had led me to expect a decent crowd; but when I arrived at Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) for Spectrum Part 3 there were only one or two other visitors looking at the work of graffiti artist Tomo. This was especially unexpected because there is a bit of a buzz around Tomo at the moment. He is shortlisted for the Liverpool Art Prize (currently on display at Metal, Edge Hill Station, Liverpool) and is The Double Negative’s artist of the month. It was a great opportunity, while the room was almost empty, to enjoy Tomo’s two floor-to-ceiling paintings (pictured). A home-grown talent (he grew up in Huyton and graduated from Graphic Design at LJMU in 2005) Tomo has plastered and painted his distinctive street art at locations all over the world. He effortlessly plays with scale, populating his paintings with an intriguing cast of characters and symbols. His monochrome offerings made a powerful start to the exhibition.
Some potential visitors may have found other distractions on that warm Thursday evening; however, the answer to where everyone was, is that they were all packed in to one room of the exhibition to see Julieann O’Malley’s performance Salty Milk: Violation of Expectation. For whatever reason, there hasn’t been as much performance art to see in Liverpool as there has been in Manchester or Birmingham; certainly since I moved to the city in 2003. Manchester City Art Gallery in particular bought performance into the mainstream with their 2011 exhibition, 11 Rooms. So maybe it is no surprise that O’Malley lives and has a studio in Liverpool, but regularly takes part in avant-garde theatre projects Manchester. What O’Malley demonstrated on Thursday evening is that not only is there an appetite in Liverpool for performance art, but that audiences will cram into a very small room to see a very challenging and (at over two hours) durational example of the art form.
Salty Milk: Violation of Expectation had a 1970s aesthetic, which I interpreted as homage to the feminist artists of that era who used performance as an alternative to the popular minimalist art produced by their male counterparts. O’Malley says that her artwork asks questions about why we do the things that we do. Here the activities of baking, sharing, note-writing, over-indulging, pregnancy and getting-ready-for-night-out were all presented back to the audience for examination. I won’t go in to detail but the audience were rewarded for their patience with a pretty gruesome display. They seemed to have enjoyed it though: all too often going to an art opening can be more about catching up with friends than engaging with the artworks, and this was refreshingly different.
If your stomach wasn’t turned enough, the work of Nicki McCubbing might just finish you off. I feel compelled to say that McCubbing’s work isn’t for the feint hearted, as that includes myself. She says that her macabre work is a product of the city as “jokes are often used by Liverpool people to conceal and overcome problems”; she seems to have picked up the mantle of Jake and Dinos Chapman and run with it into the nearest Woolworths. Although it is hard to look at, this is the best example of this kind of work that I have seen and McCubbing has a skill for making dolls and other low-culture artefacts into convincing sculptural objects.
The last two rooms contained paintings by Ria Fell and drawings by Penny Davenport. Davenport’s drawings are one of my highlights from all three parts of the Spectrum series. Using very fine obsessive mark-making, she produces images that are folkloric, entertaining and cleverly play with negative space. In the adjacent room I felt a bit sorry for Fell’s paintings as they were hung in what was essentially a corridor to O’Malley’s performance; however, they were well executed paintings that combined several artistic traditions in a fresh way.
At the close of the series it seems appropriate to reflect on what I have learnt about art and visiting exhibitions in Liverpool today. Interestingly, 10 of the 16 artists in theSpectrum series were women. A lot is written about how women are kept from success in the art-world as their time is directed towards caring for their partners and offspring – I hope that this exhibition is a sign that these barriers are breaking down. Another shift that Spectrum has demonstrated is in the makeup of the gallery goers visiting artist-led spaces. Perhaps it is because artist-led galleries are often in hard to find spaces on the edge of cities, but by contrast WCS seems to attract an intergenerational mix of regular gallery goers and those who are passing and curious. I haven’t got data to support these observations – and the diversity of the audience could be due to the marketing for Liverpool Art Month. Whatever the cause, the result is positive for the city and definitely good reason for the Arts Council England to continue to support endeavours such as this.
Spectrum Part 3 continues until Sunday 27 May open 12-4pm
First published May 2012