Text by Adam Scovell
Viewer reception has always been a facet of exhibition curation; housing the magnificent classical works in imposing, monolithic buildings being a traditional example, as if trying to reflect the vast scope of man’s first 2000 years of creativity. Playing with this reception by encouraging an active role in the perception of the viewer is at the heart of The Narrators, a show currently intermingling its way through the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
The works in The Narrators build new relationships, not just with their surroundings, but with the classical works that are housed alongside them. Describing the relationship as dialogue implies a constant two way digression yet the relationship between the works hints far more at a psychogeographical slant of observing all rather than the usual realignment of context. This suggests that the best way to explore The Narrators is in fact not to follow the guide but to explore the gallery space as a whole and allow the serendipity of reactions to work that is abnormal by its presence.
In spite of this, to find the works gave way to a childlike glee as the hunt was on to find the modern among the, largely classical, permutations of creativity; this is of course a collection of work derived from the Arts Council Collection so shouldn’t have been too difficult. To find this elusive dialogue is a curious experience as it suggests two possibilities; that either the new work is arguing with the older work or that both works are agreeing and building upon each other.
Lucy Skaer’s Leonora (The Tyrant) (2006) is a perfect example of a work in subtle agreement with its gallery bedfellows. It is said to be echoing the cast bronze of William Holman Hunt, the founder of Pre-Raphaelite movement, and in some ways it does. Leonora is a period desk with mother-of-pearl inlays portraying a set of hands trying to escape its drawer. The extravagance of such a material does suggest the creative obsession with Pre-Raphaelite beauty yet the piece fits so remarkably well into the Gothic space as a whole that it becomes almost camouflaged, save for its information card which admits an unsubtle “N” denoting it as alien to the space.
This relationship is shattered by other work within The Narrators such as Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s HK Marble (2004). The work, a huge granite sculpture spelling out ‘Heroin Kills’, explicitly adds a narrative to the portraits which surround it. Above it hangs Hogarth’s painting of actor, David Garrick, playing Richard III (1745) whose whole context is realigned with the association of drugs, suggesting the sitter’s messy room and shocked expression are linked to some opium induced catatonic nightmare and lapse in social standing.
Rather aptly, much of The Narrators was altogether missed on first viewing through my dedicated adhering to the trusted map; the dialogues between these works being quiet enough to actively slip past in a haze of colour and classical image. This relationship came to a head when it took the help of an invigilator to find one of the works. Walter de Maria’s High Energy Bar No.53 (1968) went nigh on unseen while the poor attendant sought it out in vein amongst the medieval works and pictures around it as it lay mischievously in a cabinet minding its own metallic business.
While these are only three of a number of works that detail interesting relationships, each scenario within the gallery has potential to warrant its own analysis. The sheer amount of potential receptions is staggering and while experiencing the gallery in this way does have an air of childlike entertainment about its natural game of hide and seek, The Narrators ultimately envisages new relationships in space that, for so long, has been thematically set in rigid stone.
The Narrators, at The Walker Art Gallery runs until the 16th of March.
Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker based in Liverpool.