Curator's Choice: Graham Peet on Richard Billingham and Black Country Legends

Interview by Ben Miller | 12 February 2013

Curator's Choice: Graham Peet, the Exhibitions Manager at The Public in West Bromwich, on former Turner Prize nominee Richard Billingham's new show, Ray's A Laugh, and the accompanying Black Country Legends display...

A photo of a man standing by a banner advertising a photographic exhibition in a gallery
“If you asked people where, say, Wolverhampton is, some people would say it’s in the Black Country, and some people would say you can’t define that. The Black Country can be a mysterious place.

We’ve had a long relationship with Richard over many years – he’s from the area, and we originally did an exhibition with him in 2005, during our development.

That was based around landscape pictures of the Black Country at night, and when we opened we had a small selection on display.

Those prints are fantastic. I remember coming in one morning and one of the cleaners pointed at one, of a brick wall at night, and said how amazing it was.

We’d always wanted to show his iconic work. We also always try to pair local and amateur artists with international ones.

A photo of a man lying on a bed with a woman with a brown dog in the foreground
© Copyright Richard Billingham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London
Some of Richard’s works are the 10x15 prints he got back from Boots – they’re all displayed in glass cabinets.

They’re personal to him – there’s one of his mum and one of his dad. Then a 47-minute film, Fish Tank, brings the pictures to life, showing them talking, swearing, chasing flies around their flat and other things.

It’s riveting, really beautifully filmed. There’s a lot of pathos, humour, and sad moments when they fall out, and then it ends with them cuddling.

I didn’t realise until I was looking at the credits that it was produced by Adam Curtis, who made The Power of Nightmares, and commissioned by Artangel.

Overall the exhibition is a mixture for younger and older people, including interactive work.

We’ve been running online calls for photography under certain themes. At the moment we’ve been asking for characters, getting email responses in from people every day.

We’ve got media apprenticeships in the building, so I asked them to make a PlayStation game based on curious stories from the Black Country.

They’ve treated it really nicely: it’s a series of hunts with a custom-made controller on a big screen. For example, you meet the Grey Lady at Dudley Castle, and in Walsall there’s a child’s hand with mysterious powers found in a roof.

One of the characters is called AJW – he’s a very curious local figure. You could almost call him the Black Country’s Banksy.

He’s been creating art on beer mats and cupboards, which doesn’t sound that unusual until you realise he’s done it a quarter of a million times.

There’s also a local community artist, Brendan Jackson, who’s made an installation called A Most Peculiar Place, which is a lighthearted look at some of the stories behind the Black Country."

  • Ray's a Laugh by Ray Billingham and Black Country Legends open at The Public on February 13 2013, continuing until May 6. Follow the gallery on Twitter @_the_public.

More pictures:

A photo of a man looking at a brown and white dog sitting on a bed wearing a chain
© Copyright Richard Billingham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London
A photo of a woman lounging on a brown sofa in a lounge wearing a flowery dress
© Copyright Richard Billingham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London
A photo of a man crouching over a bed next to a green bottle and a stack of white bread
© Copyright Richard Billingham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London
A photo of a half naked man sitting on a dark yellow sofa looking up at the camera
© Copyright Richard Billingham, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London
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