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mima needs no capitals to be capital

From rubber bands to ceramic treasures... David Whetstone reviews the second exhibition at mima in Middlesbrough.

From rubber bands to ceramic treasures... David Whetstone reviews the second exhibition at mima in Middlesbrough.

MIDDLESBROUGH can now boast a visually exciting new art gallery called mima, which stands for Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. It is a capital venue, even though it shuns capital letters.

Its first exhibition was a showy affair called Draw which matched cutting edge contemporary artists with their famous counterparts (Picasso, Matisse and others).

Now it is time for Middlesbrough to show that it has a visually exciting art collection to go with its new gallery.

Exhibition number two is simply mima collection: selected works.

It is clear evidence that in the Tees Valley the municipal art collection has been kept in pretty good nick.

It’s free to get in and there’s a nice cafe and a shop with arty items across a wide price range. But do enter with an open mind.

One exhibit which does confound expectations is a table full of rubber band sculptures by the late Jeff Luke.

Luke was born in Hartlepool in 1962, studied at Cleveland College of Art and then at Byam Shaw School of Art in London, where he subsequently worked.

He died in 1995 and the rubber band sculptures were part of a bequest.

There is a terrible temptation to pick them up and put their bounceability to the test, but this would inevitably result in you being bounced off the premises by the security staff.

Embedded within each rubber band sculpture, apparently, is a household implement, although mima staff don’t know what they are. The mystery, after all, is part of their appeal.

Luke’s sculptures reside beneath drawings by David Shrigley. His enormous banner, You Cannot Help Looking at This, has been provoking us outside Gateshead’s Baltic for months but the mima work is more typical, intimate.

The exhibition boasts big name artists – LS Lowry, Bridget Riley – but is perhaps most interesting for its ceramics.

James Beighton, mima’s applied arts curator, says the collection of nearly 500 pieces, makes it comparable with the national collection of the Crafts Council.

“We have all the major ceramic artists of the 20th Century and it’s growing,” he says.

The relationship between fine art and applied art (represented here by ceramics) has not always been a comfortable one, says James.

For some fine artists clay has simply been regarded as a “dirty” material, others have disputed that anything with a practical use can be defined as art at all.

What James hopes is clear from this mima exhibition is that the boundaries between the two disciplines are at least blurred and maybe non-existent.

James says that for many there has never been a dispute. Bernard Leach, one of Britain’s most distinguished potters, worked closely with sculptor Barbara Hepworth, William Staite Murray – another famous British ceramicist – exhibited with painter Ben Nicholson. Both these potters are represented in the mima collection.

James says ceramics and fine art diverged when the latter went down the conceptual route but an appealing fruit cocktail set called Forbidden Fruit, by Walter Keller, was designed to make you think. The inside of the bowl is a sumptuous yellow but access to it is impeded by stick-like ceramic protrusions.

James says on one level Keeler is suggesting the delicious cocktail in the yellow bowl is off limits.

On another level he is commenting on British dining etiquette which can take all the pleasure out of eating anything, however delicious.

Two tall, graceful vessels are the work of Edmund de Waal who is billed by mima as one of Britain’s most significant artists.

He is to be the subject of a solo exhibition opening at mima on August 10, along with two other shows.

The current exhibition runs until July 22. For full details, visit www.visitmima.com or tel. (01642) 726720.

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