Just opened at Leeds Art Gallery, One Day, Something Happens: Paintings of People is a diverse exhibition of works exploring the figure in art. It takes its name from a quote by the painter Walter Sickert: an artist whose alleged links to the Jack the Ripper case has somewhat overshadowed his creative output.
Theatricality is a key element to this show. Many of the forms on display are outlandish and some have an almost hallucinogenic quality. For example, Renee So’s Drunken Bellarmine, a remarkable work in wool and oils, shows a tumbling figure with a double face reminiscent of a playing card. At first glance, this could be an acrobat’s deliberate tumble backwards, but there is a pool of fluid at her feet that might be booze or blood. Glenn Brown’s spectacular Decline and Fall is an explosion of colour and movement that seems to combine the ‘high art’ of abstraction with the metallic decoration you might find on a motorbike. Most entertaining of all is Liz Arnold’s mischievous Uncovered which features a giant fly-like creature unconvincingly disguised in a woman’s bra and panties. It’s the sort of piece that’s likely to enrage those who feel that all art should be serious, but the playful imagery suggests all kinds of stories (and it did make me dig out my old copy of The Fly).
As with past mixed exhibitions at Leeds Art Gallery, the sheer variety of what’s on offer means that there is something for nearly everyone. Fans of representational art are well catered for as well as those – such as myself – who favour abstraction. A particular highlight of the representational pieces is Michael Fullerton’s warm and contemplative portrait Katherine Graham. From 1946, Robert Colquhoun’s Seated Woman and Cat is a disarming, melancholy painting of an older woman holding her feline companion. Something seems to have caught the cat’s attention but we can never know what.
Phoebe Unwin’s Sleeper – perhaps appropriately given its subject matter – seems to hover between the representational and the abstract. The outline of a head can be made out, surrounded by and disappearing into tones of blue, turquoise and pink. Eileen Agae’s Poet and his Muse has definite shades of Picasso in its brightly faced figure interacting with another, mask like face. It’s an eye-catching piece and another real highlight.
From 1964, Richard Hamilton’s politically charged collage Portrait of Hugh Gaitskill as a Famous Monster of Filmland merges the features of the Labour leader’s face with that of a Hollywood monster. Time has inevitably diminished some of its meaning – few people probably know who Gaitskill was – but it remains both sinister and dramatic.
The range of styles in this exhibition could have resulted in something haphazard and directionless. Happily, it all comes together to create something that feels unified by the playfulness and imagination of the works shown . Some of them are bright and inviting, others dark and unsettling. With one of two inevitable exceptions, all of them are rewarding to engage with.
An excellent show.