Whitworth, visit No. three-point-one-four-two

“26 Nov 1999: Why?”

The debris of my thirty years
Congests the squalor of this room
Arranged on silent shelves, the books
I could not bear to throw away.

Long-players mute, no turntable
Or telly to disturb the gloom
These are not mine, but next-door’s walls
Where nasty paper lurks beneath cheap paint.

Like Larkin’s nondescript celebrity
I pass my heavy days alone
In someone else’s doctor’s house
A footnote in some other person’s book.

Journal entry: 23 April 2016

I am out of work; instead of spending my days peering down a microscope at the dainty eye-shaped scratches in a film of powder-coated paint, or developing an equation that compensates for the pressure drop across a twelve-micron membrane caused by intermittent unexpected sunshine, or worrying about the fact that the green pigment grains, still seething with reactive hooks, are eager to cling together when they get the chance, I now spend all my time looking at catalogues of job vacancy listings. I say ‘catalogues of listings’; each website carries jobs which in turn are already advertised on other websites, and the process of submitting an application becomes a tortured dance from one list to another like somebody trying to cross the stream, guessing which of the stepping-stones is easier to reach.

And to preserve my sanity, I make occasional trips to the Whitworth Gallery, where the paintings have plenty of room to breathe. On my last visit I saw:

The Death of Painting:
Five square pictures of uniform size, showing an almost total black coverage with minor accidental variations in gloss and density in the body and near the edges of each. If you had a very expensive apartment in St Ives, and the local polymer science department created for you a set of square acrylic windows which had no reflective properties at all, these paintings give some idea of what you would see if you decided to look out over the sea in the dead of night.

The Death of Painting:
Five wooden frames, each with an elegant skirt of white cartridge paper which was cut using a surgeon’s knife stolen from a bunker where three Russian teenagers were found dead in 1975. The central zone of each frame is filled with a warm deep black, made up of carbon, chromium oxide, and iron oxide.

The Death of Painting:
Five objects, five equations, five unexpected dreams that fill the heart with fear. Each one of these black squares represents one of the movements from Dutilleux’ Metaboles, which I listened to on my Hitachi MP3 player about five years back when I came here. Perhaps each picture shows the emptiness of a person’s mind, the carefully-shaped regions lying in wait for the arrival of these mysterious orchestral monoliths.

The Death of Painting: Handmade Lithograph images on Somerset Rag Paper. Idris Khan, 2014. I remember seeing some other works by Khan at the Whitworth a few years back; these were ‘The Devil’s Wall’, a series of black-and-gold sculptures which made me think of a gravestone trying to turn itself into a Klein bottle.

As well as these black pictures, one of which could appear on stage as the notorious mega-expensive abstract minimalist work in Reza’s play ‘Art’, we had an embroidered sampler called ‘War…Peace’ by Cornelia Parker which showed the dictionary entries for each of these two words in a kind of visual counterpoint. But, since the piece was wall-mounted, we had one item reading forwards while the other was reversed; surely it would be better to have the work framed in glass and placed on a rotating spindle?

Other fascinating exhibits included some enigmatic Litho prints by Frank Brangwyn: he believed in having art readily accessible.

A special display to commemorate the battle of the Somme: drawings and etchings by a host of artists – Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, David Bomberg, Nevinson, Eric Kennington, and Henry Lamb, whose immense painting of a Dressing-Station is accompanied by the various preliminary sketches. Blasted forests. A bleak tin hut with snow and frozen garments, a painted landscape through which fallen soldiers are stretchered against a hideous fog of mustard-gas.

And one room is given over to ‘Bus de la Lum’, an installation by Nico Vascellari, consisting of huge glass-and-mirrored plates, some with transfer images of woodland and writing. The work is accompanied by a grand, imposing soundtrack, a resonant choral chant that summons up ideas of secret nocturnal ceremonies. The name refers to a wooded pit used as a death camp in the Second World War; an unbelievable contrast with the sunlit park outside the gallery, where handsome students sprawled on the grass and looked forward to a future of infinite possibilities.




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