Saturday, 14 November 2009
There were ten minutes to go when I got off the train at Nottingham station. I took the exit by the tramway, then headed up Middle Street to Weekday Cross. It didn't take me long to distinguish the art gallery. It glowed pale gold and dull green in the unexpected sun. I still wasn't sure about it - it looked like corrugated metal and slightly out of place among the older, weathered buildings.
During the past few months, I gradually became aware that the new gallery was planned. A stall in the Old Market Square gave me a badge saying "nottingham contemporary" in mirror writing. I wore it for a while and people were puzzled. Then there were complaints in the newspaper - how could anyone spend so much money on something so pretentious and unnecessary as art?
Suddenly there were stories about the opening - in the national press. Critics praised the building and visited the opening show: works by David Hockney and Frances Stark. I realised that today was the opening day and wanted to be there at the very beginning. So I climbed Middle Street and joined the queue penned in crash barriers.
I had only five minutes to wait. It gave me time to look at the unobtrusive details which recall the lace which was made by big, noisy machines in this part of Nottingham. Then a few ragged voices round the corner shouted "Nottingham Contemporary" and we shuffled in past cameras, microphones and a pair of fluffy zebras posing for photos in the gift shop.
Once in the gallery, I forgot about the building and started to look at the work. It's the opposite to the Guggenheim in New York. I was there nearly thirty years ago and I've forgotten the paintings - I just remember the long curving slope that led me past them. It's a beautiful building and I'm glad to have visited but if I were an artist I woudln't want my work displayed there.
The first two rooms showed work by the Californian artist, Frances Stark. At first I couldn't appreciate the flimsy collages with tiny writing and then, suddenly, I began to smile. I was looking at a drawing in which trees were made of words - the letters of the words separated into leaves, turned into birds and flew away. The first works had acclimatised me to the artist's humour and delight. I saw that around me other people were smiling too.
Frances Stark's work is full of transformations. I began to pick up themes: birds, telephones, dresses, words. In the largest exhibit three women I saw them as women - were both telephones and performers. I stopped trying to explain the work to myself and settled down to enjoy the resonances. I thought I'd like to go round again but could see the queue outside. It wouldn't be fair to go round twice while other people were waiting. "I can come back another day," I thought, "- several other days." It was a cheering thought.
Because of the crush, we were asked to take the simplest route through the museum. I saw the David Hockney exhibition backwards. It focussed on his work in the 1960s and the first thing I noticed was the huge, familiar canvas (borrowed from the Tate) of A Bigger Splash. This was Hockney newly sure of himself in California, painting sprinklers and swimming pools. In the next room Hockney was less secure. Although he drew himself beside Gandhi and Walt Whitman, he didn't claim equality with them. Each of the two famous men has a brief descriptive phrase summing up his influence. The unknown Hockney is tagged only with the words "I am 23 years old and wear glasses."
I thought I knew Hockney but much of the work on display was new to me. The drawings were a delight, especially the series illustrating poems by Cavafy and the reworking of Hogarth's Rake's Progress with Hockney as the rake arriving in California. Hockney's life unspooled further to his art school days when his work clearly came from the same tradition as Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland. Now, of course, his small rebellions - his insistance that life painting was not merely an objective organisation of shapes, his declared preference for male models, his startling obsession with the beauty of Cliff Richard - seem to anticipate his later works. But there was also the possibility of other paths - directions Hockney didn't take.
I spent an hour and a half in the four main galleries - not enough to take it all in. Then I wandered into The Space, a performance and display area where children and adults were encouraged to respond to the exhibition by making card models in gold, green and black. I picked up some card, wrote on it, and eventually fumbled my pieces together. One of the assistants optimistically assured me that my bulging box-like shape was "good - it looks like a building." She took it with several others and addded it to the display. I wandered into the café-bar.
I was in the mood for self-indulgence and ordered an espresso. I was sitting in a draught. There was no more sunlight outside. Rain battered against the door. Two bronzed young men wearing brief swimming trunks and carrying towels wandered in confidently from outside. Had Hockney known, perhaps he would have been at the opening - though I suppose there's plenty of tanned male beauty elsewhere.
I drank my espresso and shivered out into the street. I could hear music - "The Bare Necessities" from Disney's film of The Jungle Book. The zebras were dancing under a canopy. A waitress gave cake to the people queuing in the rain. I read the slogan on the window of Nottingham Contemporary: "International art. For everyone. For free."
I'll be back.