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Oval artwork just around the corner for spring at the Baltic

An American's first major retrospective and a man who paints ovals are among the spring attractions at Baltic as David Whetstone reports

Georgie Hopton Milk Churns, 2002, by Simon Bill
Milk Churns, 2002, by Simon Bill

Why do paintings have to be four-cornered? The question arises because one of the spring attractions at Baltic is to be a body of work that flies in the face of convention.

Not for Simon Bill the tried-and-tested square or rectangle. He paints ovals. And before the thought occurs that this is clearly a special show for Easter, it should be pointed out that an egg is properly described not as oval but as ovoid, having one end slightly thicker than the other.

The people at Gateshead’s centre for contemporary art plan to exhibit Simon Bill’s work in the ground floor gallery where its curves will offer some respite to visitors already dulled by the building’s straight lines and corners.

The exhibition, called Lucky Jim, will include more than 30 of the artist’s paintings dating from 1999 to the present day.

These oval paintings, we learn, “draw upon a very wide variety of sources, from philosophy to heavy metal, art history to cookery, Art Deco to neuroscience”.

Their size and shape, apparently, are just about the only unifying features, although we are alerted to the appearance of repeated motifs, including the duck/rabbit image used by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who, incidentally, once spent some time in Newcastle working as a hospital porter) to describe two different ways of seeing.

Looked at one way, this creature has a long beak like a duck; looked at differently, the ‘beak’ becomes a pair of rabbit’s ears.

Bill does not limit himself to oils or watercolours. He deploys all sorts of stuff, including every conceivable type of paint, parcel string, gaffer tape, foil, fabric swatches, yacht varnish, polystyrene, fake gems and wool.

The artist, who was born in 1958 in Kingston-upon-Thames but is based in Sheffield, studied at St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art, which sounds quite posh.

His art, though, is anything but. His trademark oval paintings – an internet trawl suggests he once remarked that “not having corners just makes it dead easy” – would seem to have a punk-like appeal, which for some people will mean no appeal at all. One critic, writing a decade ago, called them “monumentally ugly” and “studiously unpleasant”.

They are of uniform size and many of them feature images borrowed from popular culture. They have titles like Both Heaven And Hell Can Be Orange and Grizedale Beast. When they go on display in Gateshead on March 14, it will be interesting to see if they spark an oval revolution.

The biggest spring attraction opens a week later on Levels 3 and 4 and this is a major exhibition – billed as the first European retrospective – devoted to the work of Lorna Simpson, an African-American artist from New York.

She studied photography for her first degree in New York but started to make a name for herself in the mid-1980s as a pioneer in the field of conceptual photography. A series of large-scale photo-and-text works were, according to her website, designed to “confront and challenge narrow, conventional views of gender, identity, culture, history and memory.

More recently she has graduated to film and video and also embarked on a project inspired by an archive of photographs from the 1950s. She has added to this archive by recreating some of the images, posing herself to mimic the originals.

Work from three decades of her career will be represented at Baltic, including a large group of watercolours she has created over the past nine years. The exhibition has been organised with institutions in Minneapolis and Paris.

The third of the spring exhibitions, called Near Here and opening on April 18, focuses on the work of Swedish artist Nina Canell who, according to Baltic, “makes sculptures that give substance to the intangible and lightness to the physical”.

They incorporate electrical currents, stray socks, chewing gum and other bits and bobs. You can imagine she might get on very well with Simon Bill, champion of the oval.

All three of these exhibitions run until the summer. Find details of all Baltic activities on www.balticmill.com


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer