Friday, January 2, 2015

In the Realm of the Unmentionable

I had intended to complete the East Sussex Coastal Culture Trail – Towner Gallery, De La Warr Pavilion, Jerwood Gallery – during the summer; but having been to Eastbourne and Bexhill, we never managed to take the kids down to Hastings to see the Quentin Bake exhibition at the Jerwood before the holidays ran out. Then, when the October half-term rolled around, Blake had been replaced by the Chapman brothers and a day out to the William Morris interiors at the National Trust’s Standen House seemed more appropriate.

However, on the final day of 2014, with the kids unravelling in the post-Christmas dog days, we headed down to the Rock-a-Nore area at the eastern end of Hastings for our first visit to the Jerwood Gallery. The gallery was opened in March 2012 and the black-tiled exterior and the low, clean lines of the structure blend in well with the surrounding Net Shops - tall black wooden sheds that house the fishermen’s gear.

The proposal for the gallery was not without opposition: many local residents felt that it would lead to gentrification of the area and the loss of a coach car park would adversely affect local commerce. With a hotel and apartment block having just been built nearby, there may be something in the former fear; but as for the latter, on the day we visited the gallery it seemed to have attracted plenty of people to the surrounding businesses.

Local residents also receive a 60% reduction in entrance prices to the Jerwood, which does not receive any public funding, and on the first Tuesday of each month admission is free between 4pm and 8pm. Relying on sponsorship, donations and admission income to run the gallery and exhibitions, I thought the £20 cost of a family ticket was good considering it was for two adults and three kids; four quid each for what we experienced was excellent value (so often at attractions family tickets only cover two children; it was a refreshing change for us that the outnumbered had been thought of).

As a gallery of contemporary British art, there is a notable permanent collection of sculpture and paintings featuring works by Elisabeth Frink, Lucien Freud, LS Lowry, Stanley Spencer and Walter Sickert. And there is much art with a local connection: Frank Brangwyn’s 1925, From My Window at Ditchling; Frank Truefitt’s Victorian watercolour, Hastings; John Piper’s snappily titled, Beach and Starfish Seven Sister's Cliff Eastbourne, from between the wars; and one of the kids was particularly drawn to the primary vibrancy of American Anglophile Alfred Cohen’s, Sunset Over Fairlight.

But it was the Chapman brothers’ exhibition, In the Realm of the Unmentionable, that was the talking point afterwards. Having grown up in Hastings and attended a local comprehensive school, Jake and Dinos Chapman were back in the town having followed a route that took in the Royal College of Art, Gilbert and George’s studio and a Turner Prize nomination. With a reputation for provocative art that deals with themes of identity and mortality, Jake Chapman’s recent declaration that it was a waste of time taking children to art galleries and the caveat at the entrance that some of the content could be unsuitable for children, we were slightly nervous about going in. We need not have worried: the kids were fascinated by the art and, although the seven-year-old pronounced some of it as “wrong”, they all slept well that night.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, The Sum of All Evil, is four glass cases arranged as a cross that contain a miniature landscape populated with toy Nazi soldiers, crucified Hitlers and Ronald McDonalds, mountains of corpses, and mutated and mutilated naked forms. The sheer scale and detail of this hellish vision is quite breath-taking; the kids could only tear themselves away when they noticed Family Portrait, a group of eyeless shop mannequins with their eyeballs in their hands. There are more conventional drawings and etchings on display but there is a sense, with their corruptions of traditional portraiture and join-the-dots drawings, that the brothers are happiest poking fun at the established art world. And when one of the rooms, with its ceiling lowered to a spine-bending five feet, contains only a dull fruit bowl still-life signed A.Hitler, the joke seems to be on all of us.

When we retired across the street for fish ‘n’ chips at the heaving Fish Hut, debate centred around one piece: The Sum of All Evil. The eleven-year-old said he found it “disturbing”, the ten-year-old said it was “cool” and the seven-year-old said, “who is Ronald McDonald?” We might have exposed our kids to some troubling images, but we must be doing something right.

In The Realm of the Unmentionable runs until Wednesday 7th January 2015.
Be quick, now.

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