Questions of colour
On the third floor of the New Art Gallery, Walsall, where its first temporary exhibition, 'BLUE: borrowed and new', is being staged, there is an area for visitors' remarks. Many are from children on some aspect of the show; one, in an adult hand, is on the gallery itself. 'What a fantastic thing to have happened to this place!'
Press coverage of Caruso St John's building so far has been similarly positive; and, with minor reservations, it's hard to demur. The care with which it has been designed and constructed is so conspicuous. At the gallery's core, physically as well as symbolically, is the Garman Ryan Collection - a permanent display of mostly small-sized works donated to the town by Jacob Epstein's widow. Hung close together, these are grouped thematically (portraits, townscapes, etc) in two floors of domestic-scale rooms off a double-height hall clad entirely in Douglas Fir. There, every nuance of the wood's colour and grain can be discerned.
This is just one of several generous volumes that punctuate an exploration of the gallery, from the opulent foyer to the lofty rooftop cafe, in both of which the Douglas Fir-cladding gives way on the upper reaches of the wall to board-marked concrete. They seem all the more expansive for such interludes as the narrow stair that leads in three successive flights from the first to the third floors, its confinement relieved momentarily by a glimpse into the Garman Ryan hall.
The third floor, with four rooms of varied dimensions - one spanning the breadth of the building - is designated for temporary exhibitions; and the opening show, 'BLUE', explores the use of that colour in twentieth- century art. 'It is the colour of dreams and imagination, of spirituality and introspection,' says Deborah Robinson, the gallery's Senior Exhibitions Officer.
An eclectic mix of works (mostly paintings) is on display: figurative and abstract, large and small, from Picasso's oil-on-canvas Girl in a Chemise (1905) to Jason Martin's acrylic-on-aluminium Cull (1999). The hang disregards chronology, style and movement to create 'a context in which works of art can have 'conversations' with each other.'
This approach is rapidly becoming a new critical orthodoxy. New York's Museum of Modern Art, traditionally the touchstone for a seamless canonic history in which one neatly packaged movement follows another, is currently experimenting with a radical re-presentation of its permanent holdings. When Tate Modern opens this May, it too will free works from their old period or stylistic compartments to foster new inter-relationships.
These revisionist tactics can be exciting, even revelatory, in the juxtapositions and associations they create; but the risk they run is that the arrangement of works looks only arbitrary. There are some splendid pieces in 'BLUE' - a little Yves Klein watercolour; an Albers Square in gouache on blotting paper; two large three-part abstracts by Yuko Shiraishi with blues of different density and hue - but the show remains a miscellany, too loosely inclusive in concept and insufficiently focused in its installation.
It's on this third floor that any doubt about the gallery arises, in respect of its lighting. The long room is wrapped around on three sides by a clerestorey window whose natural light is supplemented by spotlights slotted inconspicuously between the concrete ceiling joists, 6m high. On an overcast day, perhaps because of the limited quantity of spots in operation or their inexact positioning, the room seemed distinctly subdued. But even in these overcast conditions, the intensity of light through the smallish windows puncturing the walls at either end made the works beside them difficult to see. A tiny Miro was almost overwhelmed.
It must be said that these windows, at intervals throughout the building, frame striking views of the town; Walsall's roofscape proves surprisingly arresting. And the balance between exterior and interior light may be fine-tuned over time. As significant for the future of the gallery, however, are the curatorial issues that 'BLUE' raises.
A great effort is obviously being made to engage local residents, especially children. Greeting you when you first enter the building is the Discovery Gallery - a hands-on introduction to art - and during a half-term afternoon it was packed. But the enduring success which the building richly merits will presumably depend on return visits from people at a distance as well as its immediate clientele. Whatever the pleasures of the Garman Ryan Collection, that alone is unlikely to be an adequate draw; the programme of temporary exhibitions will be the key. 'BLUE' offers an enjoyable enough experience, but a little more rigour, in both the conception and the execution of its shows, would benefit the gallery hereafter.