Sunday, 18 July 2004

Roving Gallery Report No. 309

I've often wondered what it would be like to live in an artists' colony. Having been to St Ives I'm still not in a position to know the answer, because I went as a visitor, of course.

I can't imagine what it was like for Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach, Bryan Wynter, Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost et al, to hang out in 1950s St Ives, and mix with an international art set there.

"In St Ives you could walk into a pub or go to a party and see Rothko or Motherwell and eminent critics, American and British. At the time it all seemed natural but in retrospect it was an extraordinary and exciting period."
Tom Cross,
Catching the Wave

That's all gone now, of course, but St Ives still retains a little of the aura of what once was.

A lot of that is in the visitor's head, however. I found myself wandering round an exhibition by the
St Ives Society of Artists and being surprised to find that some of the work was at best average. Why should I be surprised? There's no reason why Newcastle should have more average artists than St Ives.

What I think helps artists living in St Ives is that they're in an atmosphere where art is expected to be found and where ill-informed visitors assume that what is on display must be good because it's in an "artists' colony." In fact, my visits to quite a few local galleries and artists' open studios showed there was an awful lot of distinctly average art about, and that's being kind.

Better by far were the exhibitions we found in
The Great Atlantic Map Works Gallery in St Just. The show coming down and the one going up were both really good, and the profusion of red dots, even on works as yet unhung, showed there are people about who value good work and are prepared to invest in it.

Of the two Tate institutions in St Ives, I got most out of the Barbara Hepworth Museum. Like the
Baltic in Gateshead, the Tate St Ives is an interesting building conversion with not a great deal in it. A small selection of Nicholsons, Naum Gabos and Peter Lanyons in the permanent collection and, currently, a pretty good show of wood sculpture by David Nash, but also some indifferent stuff like a sound installation purporting to demonstrate how much the streets of Mumbai sounded like St Ives. OK, there was too much traffic in St Ives, but Mumbai it is not.

The Barbara Hepworth Museum was a whole nother thing. The little Sculpture Garden attached to its house and studio, is almost exactly the garden I have in mind for my house. All I need are the big bits of sculpture and lots of bamboo.

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