A little girl is galloping round the latest exhibition at Baltic 39 with a big smile on her face. She’s in pink stripes and you can see why she’s happy because that’s the way this colourful and vibrant exhibition makes you feel.
She could be one of the exhibits. Shortly afterwards I meet an art student called Stacey Davidson who actually is one of the exhibits, or at least the top she’s wearing is. It was designed by one of the participating artists, Flore Nove-Josserand (French-born, London-based), who uses wallpaper patterns and textiles in her work and clearly isn’t bothered if it’s hanging on girls rather than walls.
This riotous display of colour in the Baltic offshoot on Newcastle’s High Bridge is the first of twin exhibitions looking at painting and abstraction. It is called Riff and it is to be followed in January by Rift.
Each has been put together by Matthew Hearn, an artist, curator and critic who also lectures in fine art at Newcastle University, in partnership with other North East artists – Thomas Whittle in the case of Riff and Sebastian Trend in the case of Rift. Together they are The Hang Gang.
What distinguishes the two exhibitions, according to Matthew, is that while Riff is about the harmonious, Rift will be about the discordant properties of painting. While Riff explores the sense of “fluency and unity” in abstraction, Rift will “give credence to error, accident and chance”.
So here we are in Riff and the many shapes and colours are riffing off each other to dramatic effect. They’ve certainly animated the stripy little girl who I learn is another product of a Matthew Hearn collaboration. She’s his delightful two-year-old daughter, Robyn Mae.
As she alternates between high-speed gallery circuits and clinging possessively to his leg, Matthew tells me that the idea for this exhibition came out of another one he and the painter Mike Pratt (also represented here) organised three years ago at the NewBridge Project Space on Newcastle’s New Bridge Street.
“It was a four-person show about ideas of painting and we wanted to expand on that in a national and international context,” he says.
Talking to Thomas and Sebastian, they had all agreed that exciting things were happening in painting now and the exhibition two-parter grew out of discussions relating to their own individual art practices and what they were trying to say with their work.
Writers wanting to make a dramatic point have been giving painting the last rites for many years, perhaps since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal in 1917 and called it art (he can’t have been wrong since it is now part of art history).
Back in the 1980s video was predicted to kill not just the radio star but the artist who, in the face of galloping technological progress, insisted on sticking with old fashioned brushes and canvas. But even then a new generation of figurative painters was emerging from Glasgow, inspired by an earlier group of painters who became known as the Scottish Colourists for their devotion to a psychedelic palette.
“Someone was writing the other day about video being dead,” says Matthew with a smile.
The most famous name in the Riff exhibition is that of Albert Irvin, the 91-year-old abstract painter whose work has regularly been shown at the nearby Northumbria University Gallery. At Baltic 39 his 1988 acrylic painting titled Salcot rises like a great sunrise on one wall.
This is one British artist, awarded the OBE this year for his services to the visual arts, who you could say has never gone out of fashion. Matthew, who is clearly thrilled to have been able to include him in this show, says in this context he can also be seen as part of a resurgence.
Around him are the products of younger generations of artists similarly seduced by colours and shapes and their juxtaposition.
“One of the things that’s interesting about this show is it’s not a complete overview of everyone’s individual practice,” says Matthew. “It really just shows elements of the artists’ work.
“But we deliberately hung a lot of things close together so you do get this sense of things riffing off each other and the effects are heightened.”
The fact that they managed to ‘sell’ their exhibition idea to Baltic enabled them to approach artists who would otherwise have been beyond their reach, Matthew adds appreciatively.
Artists who visit Baltic 39 – and there is a sense that this is very much an artists’ gallery – will no doubt spot all sorts of intellectual references and pointers to the direction art is taking.
But simply delighting in dancing shapes and colours, like little Robin Mae, seems a perfectly valid response. As you come out of the lift and enter the upper floor gallery, the first thing you are likely to see is Cross Double-Cross by Tommy Grace and Kate Owens.
Officially it is “recycled polythene liners and condensation” but it covers one big window with colourful transparent shapes and the light filtering through is reminiscent of cathedral stained glass, put there to lift the spirits.
First shown at the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh two years ago, the window piece beautifully sets the tone.
Thomas Whittle – like Matthew a Newcastle University fine art graduate – lets his paintings in the exhibition speak for themselves, perhaps because they are about nothing but themselves. All titled Abstract Painting and numbered accordingly, they hint at no external source of inspiration.
“I think abstraction is one of those things that creep up on you as a painter,” he says as we stand in front of one of the paintings.
He explains how red on top of blue creates perspective and it’s true that this two-dimensional rectangle acquires depth even as you study it.
Abstract painting, says Thomas, offers “a bit of headspace” to people whose brains have become saturated by proliferating photographic images delivering information. “It is about inviting people to look at something and just enjoy looking, seeing what they want to see.”
This is an exhibition that fosters enjoyment and even amusement.
As you enter the gallery on High Bridge you will see, along with some Albert Irvin and Thomas Whittle works in a glass case, a digital slideshow called Sleeping Patterns.
It shows photos of discarded mattresses taken by Newcastle artist Adam Shield on the streets of Glasgow, where he now lives and works. What is it about an unwanted mattress that makes people feel so helpless? In Scotland’s second city, it seems, they are very much an urban feature, like pigeons and double yellow lines.
Smile at the slides and then, upstairs in the main gallery, see the artist’s paintings, capturing the patterns and colours of these things we take for granted, complete with the stains and distortions that speak of heavy use.
Don’t be tempted to take a running kick at the white sphere on the floor nearby, even though it does resemble a football.
This is Inside the White Cube 2009 - till Death and it is the work of Steven Emmanuel, a Welsh graduate of the Royal College of Art who is now based in Germany. “My practice,” he states on his website, “is predominantly about the act of putting duration into form.”
Illustrating this is the white ball which is made entirely of emulsion paint. Every day since he began in December 2009 the artist has been adding a single dab of paint (or entrusting others to add it) to the ball. He intends to carry on doing so until his dying day, after which it will become his gravestone. Steven Emmanuel is 30. It could be a very large gravestone.
Among other interesting contributors to Riff are Daniel Eatock, designer of the Big Brother eye logo, who makes pictures by allowing ink pens to drain onto paper, and Johannes Evers whose short film Abstract Painting No. 2 features a naked man crashing about in a 3D representation of a 2D abstract painting.
One or two of the Riff exhibits, says Matthew, will also be part of Rift, a kind of intrusion in keeping with the title of the forthcoming exhibition.
On January 19 there will be a closing event in the gallery featuring performance artist David Sherry and a Cardiff band called Islet. Riff runs until January 19 (Rift follows from January 22 until March 2). Baltic 39, at 31-39 High Bridge, Newcastle, is open Wednesday to Sunday, 12 noon until 6pm (8pm on Thursdays). Admission is free. Details on www.balticmill.com/39