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Rattle snakes and mushroom clouds

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
On 12 January nine students and two tutors from the OCA visited the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. We began by looking at ‘Futureland’, a photographic exhibition by Chris Wainwright and John Kippin which the gallery had first shown in the 1990’s. Most of the photographs documented the decline of heavy industry and changes to traditional white working class communities in the north east. This proved particularly interesting since some of the group had strong memories of the period and were able to comment on its relevance to the present day.

Image by Steve Estill

The group discussed the work in the context of particular topics in the OCA photography course: the influence of socio-economic forces on the artists’ work; their use of image and text and the extent to which the photographers used stereotyped images of their subject matter. One of the themes of the day was the transition from Modernism to post Modernism. Hence we discussed the way in which the era had been marked by a tendency for artists to begin to abandon the notion of the avant-garde and of a purist exploration of their particular medium. In the case of Chris Wainwright and John Kippin this was reflected in their use of large format cameras and of staged or invented images intended for exhibition in a gallery. We compared this to the tradition of earlier documentary photographers and their much-vaunted pursuit of truth and integrity. We also compared Chris Wainwright and John Kippin’s work to Victorian portrayals of north east communities in the Laing’s ‘Northern Spirit’ gallery. These included awe-inspiring landscapes by John Martin whose pictorial devices and use of the sublime had been acknowledged by the photographers as an influence on their work. Before leaving the Laing we looked at landscapes by David Bomberg and others in the permanent collection and at an installation by Paul Noble, the Turner Prize nominated artist who had created an installation using artefacts from the gallery.
After lunch we visited the work of the American artist, Jim Shaw at the Baltic. OCA art history tutor Gerald reports. The group began by looking at the exhibition in pairs. We then discussed the way in which the artist appropriated images from popular culture, his use of irony and his deliberately tongue-in-cheek approach to the delights of fifties’ TV shows and science fiction. There was some discussion about whether one critic was right in criticising the work as ‘nerdy boy’s stuff.’ However, the group seemed more enthusiastic when we looked at his larger works, which critiqued American culture from the stand-point of a bogus cult invented by the artist. The series, each of which was painted on a giant theatre back-drop, included an image of the American flag made out of stripy rattle-snakes with portraits of American presidents as the stars. Another painting was of an Atomic mushroom cloud spewing anachronistic consumer goods and a third of corporate office workers stranded in the desert next to a train that had literally run out of track. Above the office workers’ heads was a quote from the gates of Auschwitz to the effect that ‘work makes people free.’
After a final round-up in which we compared Shaw’s theatrical post-modernist approach to the work of Chris Wainwright and John Kippin, we lined up for a group photograph, which was taken by Steve Estill. The group asked the tutors to pass on their thanks to the Baltic staff for their interesting explanation of the works and their contributions to our discussions. We then retired a bit wiser and a lot hungrier for tea and lemon cake in their café.
Here are some student rflections on the day:
Nigel Monkton
Steve Estill

Posted by author: Jane Parry
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