Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Harry vs Gary: difference and indifference at Wolverhampton Gallery

A telling juxtaposition currently at Wolverhampton Art Gallery: downstairs, by municipal beneficence, a modest display of etchings and banknote designs by Coseley boy Harry Eccleston OBE (died 2010); upstairs, by Arts Council munificence, yards of giant paintings by Saatchi boy Gary Hume, YBA, RA and bar. (Brief write-ups on the Gallery website, but – as usual – no pics to speak of.)

Hume’s-eye view of a hermaphrodite polar bear. Hilarious.

Pardon me if I’m succumbing to age-related Victor-Meldrew-ish bafflement, but what’s the big deal about Gary Hume? I don’t believe it. Humungous pieces that can’t justify their scale, hastily walloped in household gloss with random, reductionist, pointless little jokes that might just about look appropriate on a quirky greetings card. But only on a greetings card. Hume has famously described himself as “indifferent”. Quite so. But then, indifference provokes indifference. (Though upstairs, there’s also a room of bits and bobs chosen by him from the Gallery collections. These are way more intriguing. He has chosen well. He may be cynical, but he’s not daft.)

It took me two minutes to take in the Hume room (a few nanoseconds per painting is all they are calculated to require), but I lost track of time in the Eccleston corner. Apart from the banknote bits (you’ll recognise his version of Her Maj), there are smoky etchings of Black Country blast furnaces, Sickert-inspired interiors of the Theatre Royal in Bilston, and – best of all – some wonderfully stark, stately, rhythmic prints of industrial structures – entirely observational, but, in their selection of forms, entirely informed by post-war hard edged abstraction. (Like wandering into a landscape constructed by Franz Kline.) Eccleston’s studies of power cables and insulators come across like graphic music scores. Admittedly, everything here is retro-industrial, technical, black and white, introverted, very small scale, and frighteningly obsessive. But inside the anal-retentive designer, you can sense an expansive artist struggling to burst his skin. If only he had broken free and gone on to work on the scale of Gary Hume … But it was against his nature, I suppose.

An Eccleston view of Caponfield Steel Works

The pairing of Hume and Eccleston says an awful lot about our era. Not just about the impoverishing influence of Charles Saatchi, but more broadly about the impoverished condition of capitalism. An important difference may be to do with integrity. In Eccleston’s banknotes the standing of the currency of the realm is stated in gravure and with gravity. Whereas a Hume abstract would look undemandingly in place on that big bare wall in the Barclays boardroom. In fact, there’s probably one hanging there already. If not, they can still afford it.

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