Tuesday 5 August 2008

Reflections on Cornwall and conceptual art

We spent last week in St. Ives, Cornwall. It was a mostly wet week, bookended by a few glorious days of sunshine, which we spent on Porthminster Beach - still, for my money, one of the best in Britain. It certainly enjoys some of the best views - the Mediterranean-looking white cottages tumbling down to the harbour in one direction, Godrevy Lighthouse (which inspired Virginia Woolf) in the other. And the restaurant continues to justify its place in the list of top beach cafes: the food is excellent, the ambience perfect, the waitresses charming (the same things are also true of its sister cafe round the bay at Porthgwidden beach). And we were a safe distance along the coast from David Cameron's Boden catalogue photo op at Padstow.

On the wet days, we joined the kagool-clad crowds thronging the pasty and fudge shops in the narrow lanes of St. Ives. We also paid our annual visit to Tate St. Ives, as well as driving over to Newlyn to take a look at their revamped gallery. The Tate had a small exhibition devoted to modernism in St. Ives, showing a selection of works by the 20th century big names, but the main draw was its retrospective on 'the dawn of a colony', which included paintings by the first (Victorian) generation of artists to base themselves in the town. This was fascinating, revealing that the St. Ives discovered by these early visitors was a dirty, smelly, fishing and mining town: it could be argued that the apparently 'natural' beauty of the place was actually a creation of the tourist industry, which began with the arrival of the railway, and to a lesser extent the burgeoning colony of artists.

Both the Tate and the Newlyn Gallery also featured big (in the sense of taking up a lot of space) exhibitions by 'conceptual' artists: Adam Chodzko at the former and Bedwyr Williams at the latter. I'm afraid neither did much for me. I found Williams' humorous installations too idiosyncratically autobiographical (one piece, featuring pool tables and a model railway, was presented as revenge for a teenage humiliation), while both exhibitions seemed to require the viewer to read the explanatory notes in order to grasp the 'point'. Another of Williams' pieces consisted of a multilayered shoe rack, complete with a selection of the huge shoes that he has managed to find to fit his outsized feet: the labels on each told their 'story'. Interestingly, I notice that Chodzko created something similar for an earlier exhibition.

I know that I'm revealing my sorry lack of understanding of contemporary art here, and that the expressionist paintings that I like were also considered strange and unappealing in their time. I'm aware too, that I'd be sniffy about someone expressing this kind of 'I know what I like' attitude in a field that I know something about - e.g. literature. But to me there really does seem to be a huge aesthetic shift in moving from a modernism which, however odd at first, was still in the long tradition of art appealing directly to the viewer's sensibility, and a conceptualist post-modernism which invites you to take in the work, then step back and read the accompanying notes in order to 'get it'.

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