Arty grads invade four Birmingham area galleries for New Art West Midlands

By Mark Sheerin | 21 February 2014

Exhibition review: New Art West Midlands (NAWM): Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, until May 18 2014; Grand Union, Birmingham, until March 15 2014; The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham until April 27 2014; Wolverhampton Art Gallery until May 10 2014.

Cheryl Howard, A Grandmother’s Tale – Escaping (2013)© Courtesy the artist
It may be known as the city of 1,000 trades, but the most exciting job in or around Birmingham right now might be a lectureship at one of the West Midlands’ five major art schools. For the next month or three, the products of a first class education can be found showcased throughout the region.

From an applicant pool of 140, New Art West Midlands comprises 24 recent graduates from Birmingham City University, Coventry University, Staffordshire University, University of Wolverhampton and University of Worcester.  For most it will be a first chance to show work in a museum environment.

As settings go, Birimingham Museum and Art Gallery, for example, is a lot more imposing than an art school studio. But it should be said that the 13 artists, found across two rooms, boasted the element of surprise, when compared with the nearby Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Personal highlights included Ali Reed, with site specific painting, laser cut architectural models and a meta-commentary on NAWM. Morna Locki Anrig also stood out, making a floor from used napkins and recycled kitchen waste. Her tiles were in keeping with many found elsewhere in the building.

Across town at the Barber Institute, grand arrangements have been made for half a dozen more of the chosen artists. A disused Coventry nightclub, painted by James Birkin, now sits alongside a 17th century painting of a Roman arch by Jan Miel and Alessandro Salucci.

Wendy Ann Titmus, Nurse and Child (2012)© courtesy the artist
Technically it might compare poorly, but it resounds in a similar way. Meanwhile Wendy Ann Titmus juxtaposes haunting wood and wax sculpture with a reliquary pertaining to a long dead saint. It was good to see a serious university gallery responding to NAWM with humour and daring.

Short time sadly circumvented a visit to Wolverhampton Art Gallery where the eight artists on show included two inspired by pop culture, Sharon Farrelly and Amelia Greville. Fortunately, though Grand Union opened its doors to share the exciting results of their bursary scheme.

The five artists here were each awarded £500 to make a new piece of work and of the three venues visited, it was Grand Union which most impressed. Perhaps the contemporary art was more at ease in the artist-led space. Or perhaps work made with the benefit of a mentoring scheme was the best.

Hannah Sutherland, for example, has made a work of considerable power. Screens in a cavernous lock up relay videos of her laptop screen while searching the web for the term internet freedom. The info overload is both overwhelming and stirring. It offers hope, even in the face of bewilderment.

As such it is a perfect mise-en-scène for a recent graduate faced with the multifarious prospects of dealing with the real world. Birmingham is a good place to be. In the city of 1,000 trades you will find an artist on the civic coat of arms. New Art West Midlands, just one year old, feels like it has been around forever.
  • Admission free. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery open 10am-5pm daily (from 10.30am Friday); Grand Union open 12pm-5pm Thursday to Saturday; The Barber Institute of Fine Arts open 10am-5pm daily (from 11am Saturday and Sunday); Wolverhampton Art Gallery open 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday.
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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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