Would you agree with me if I told you that Jack Wills is the most innovative place in the Lace Market? What if I described Kurt Geiger as the home of artistic masterpieces? And surely, American Apparel exemplifies the most striking use of colour? In fact, the true recipient of such estimable titles would be Nottingham Contemporary, which opened its doors to the city last month.
‘International art. For everyone. For free.’ Running with this democratic slogan, Nottingham Contemporary hopes to establish itself as both a prominent centre for contemporary art, and a space that can be claimed by the community. These ideals are typified by the cutting edge architecture, which draws attention to itself as a work of art in its own right. Constructed out of such diverse materials as glass, wood, concrete and corrugated metal, the building is unpredictable in its composition and forms. Inside, space is born out of surprising angles and the appearance of poured concrete, exposed wires and piping, recall a modern industrial setting. The art in here is so readily available that one of the gallery walls is made out of glass, so that the exhibition is on display even to the intrepid shopper heading to Poundland, via the Broadmarsh Centre.
Contemporary landed a coup with its debut exhibition, David Hockney, 1960-1968: A Marriage of Styles, showcasing one of the great British artists of our time. We kick off with his student days, when Bradford born Hockney moved to London to study at the Royal College of Art. Whilst many of us are content with expressing our sexuality in Oceana or Gatecrasher, Hockney does so through the slightly more creative medium of art. Words and phrases such as ‘queer’ and ‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’ – a line lifted from Walt Whitman – are marked across paint-lashed, abstract expressionist canvases. These early works display a thirst for the artistic process, a vigorous, spontaneous approach to painting, and a style that is at once both child-like and shrewd.
Now, why anyone would want to leave Yorkshire, a land where it is impossible to be outside walking distance of at least three locals, is beyond me. But that’s what Hockney did, moving to LA at the end of 1963 whilst still in his twenties. The move resulted in some of his most iconic work, his canvases saturated in the blue hues of the Californian skies and swimming pools. Hockney teams vibrant colour with a bold, solid composition, on which he paints a single nude figure (Peter Getting Out Of Nick’s Pool, 1966) or a dynamic action (A Bigger Splash, 1967). The result is quintessentially Hockney, infused with his characteristic wit and sexual yearning.
But what of Frances Stark…? exhibits the mixed media collages of the native Californian artist Frances Stark. Her canvas of choice is paper or wood, on which she sticks photo images, patterned paper, newspaper and letter scraps, and references the work of Emily Dickinson, Frederick Nietzsche, and others. Like most contemporary artists, Stark defies the tradition of art that is an accurate, realistic depiction of the world in grand oil painting, instead offering us minimalist compositions that appear to display a lo-fi approach to the artistic process. The centre-piece of Momentarily Lifted (2001) is a photo of a pelican sellotaped to a paper canvas, above which words have been drawn on in pencil. Often, no obvious meaning is generated by the juxtaposition of the composite parts of Stark’s work, so the viewer is invited to interpret their own. I found myself at times suspicious of the games she was playing with her art, and the possibly hollow associations I was led to seek out.
From its conception, Nottingham Contemporary was always set to be a stalwart addition to the city’s artistic attractions, and the international quality of the current exhibitions is an exciting indication of the direction in which this cultural institution is headed.
By Stephanie Soh