Jessica Hayre, Red, photograph © the artist (1)

 

Leicester’s New Walk Museum hosts the fantastic Open 25 Exhibition, which accepts works from emerging and established artists from Leicester and surrounding areas

In the Museum itself, there are also plenty of great exhibits, and at the moment, the Museum is hosting the Open 25 Exhibition, which accepts artworks from first-time, emerging and established artists within Leicester and Leicestershire. There are currently 350 artworks on display by 200 artists, and these represent a range of different forms of media including, but not limited to, photography, watercolours, sketches, oils and mixed media.

During the summer I attended the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, and one of the speakers was comedian Frank Skinner. He said that he often stops in at art galleries as he walks around London during the day, saying that they are “service stations for the soul”. I’m reminded of this sentiment when I walk through the doors to Gallery 11, before a screaming, running child breaks my happy reverie.

I’ve made the mistake of going on a Saturday, when hyper children are let loose in what would otherwise be a tranquil viewing environment. But I try to block out the yelling, and when it stops, I just hope to myself that the reason is that the child’s eye has caught on one of the works on display, and they’ve stopped in their tracks in awe. Well, I’d like to think so.

As I walk around the gallery, I have to say that a handful of the artworks have this effect on me. I’m not going to pretend that I’m any sort of art buff, but I firmly believe that everyone has an appreciation of aesthetics, no matter how ‘arty’ they might think they are.

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One of these artworks is the winner of the Attenborough Prize, ‘Sacre Bleu Baleine’ by Olivier Leger. Something about it just instantly strikes me as soon as I see it: It depicts a massive blue whale that happens to have an intricately detailed forest on its back. The artist says that he “takes inspiration from nature and likes to turn animals into landscapes”

The next work to catch my eye is ‘Red’ by Jessica Hayre, This work depicts a woman, but her eyes are blurred out by a bar taken from another photograph, and there really is just something exquisitely dazzling in both its innovation and its stark simplicity. This work absolutely deserves its place on the Attenborough Prize shortlist.

‘Lipstick’ by Tim Fowler is startling in its Banksy-esque charm, and is hard to miss as you look around the exhibit. Like other graffiti-inspired works, I think it attempts to make the case for graffiti as an art form, and asks why some works are considered to be ‘art’ and others merely vandalism.

As I’m gazing around the far end of the gallery, I hone in on the word ‘Derry’ included in one of the paintings. A closer look reveals ‘Derry Walls to the Peace Bridge’ by Christine Johnson-Hume, a sort of collage tracing the development of Derry from the plantation age through Bloody Sunday and the Troubles to the Peace Bridge as it stands now, linking the traditionally Catholic and Protestant areas of the city. It does this by including newspaper clippings and iconic photographs depicting what happened on Bloody Sunday. By including these three historic points in time, Johnson –Hume has rather expertly provided a jolting crash-course in Derry’s history, and allowed us to see how far Derry has come.

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“There are many different kinds of artists in Leicester, some have their eyes on the national or international art scene who make a good living selling their work locally, and some who do it for the love of doing it, and there’s an even spread of that” says Hugo Worthy, Exhibitions Manager at the museum. “Open 25 started out as a small exhibit run by artists for artists, and it displayed 50 or 60 works; it has been in 4 different galleries over the years as it’s expanded. If you’re a Leicester-based artist and you just want to show your work, this is the perfect place for it”

I’ve come back on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to get another look at the gallery and learn a little bit more about the exhibit. I asked Mr Worthy how he thought the exhibition will develop over the next 25 years, and he replied:“I like to think it’ll still be running in 25 years, it would be absolutely amazing to have that kind of continuity; In the future, I think it will develop in terms of different types of artists, and it will become more community-focused, so there’ll be more artists who are doing it for the love of art rather than attempting to establish a career. That’s our big growth area here at the moment, and a great example is the Youth Open, 5 years ago we had 11 entries, whereas this year we’ve had 200 entries, so there’s been this roughly 50% exponential increase each year, which is brilliant”

This exhibition intrigues me, mainly due to its eclectic mix of conventional and unconventional art forms and works.

But the aspect that most fascinates me is its accessibility; for a pretty long time, too many of us have viewed art as something only to be enjoyed by pretentious, snobby hipsters, but so many of these pieces are striking in a manner that is easily appreciable by the ‘average’ person.

To a large proportion of people, probably the majority, the art world in its current form can seem mystifying; ‘artists’ such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are celebrated despite the fact that their work does not appear to require any effort, nor any artistic consideration.

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Exhibitions such as these in New Walk, then, are a representation of the democratisation of art: the return of the art world to the hands of people not normally connected with the contemporary scene. As I walk around the gallery and view the stunning work on display, I hope against hopes that all of this is the future of art, not sharks encased in formaldehyde, or unmade beds.

Art should not solely be the sphere of middle-class London types. At the end of the day, if a working-class Northern Irish guy can like this stuff, the average Brit should be able to as well.

Posted by Jessica Tilling