In the past few years Sunderland University's Reg Vardy Gallery has shown what a small university gallery can achieve with modest core funding and an energetic curatorial approach. Its programme has included explorations of folk history and popular culture, including an exhibition of the films and hobbies of the polymath American collector Harry Smith, a show of the fabulous 'masking' suits made for the mardi gras celebrations in New Orleans and an international festival of flipbooks. It has also made shows around ideas that have particular currency in contemporary art, such as the exhibition 'Once more ... With feeling', which explored processes of re-enactment in contemporary art and culture. The Vardy feels close to artists, connected to contemporary thinking, independent and effective in its regional context.
More recently the Vardy has been the initiator and organiser of 'North + South'. Originally conceived as a collaboration with the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, the project attracted Arts Council funding and grew into an ambitious scheme linking the coastal cities of Southampton and Sunderland and involving three public venues in each city. It was conceived as a national open submission to be selected by the curators of the six galleries, and artists were invited to pitch for a commission to produce new work 'responding to the notion of English identity in the 21st century'. Fifteen artists were commissioned in this way, each with a budget of 2,500 [pounds sterling], and an equal number were selected to show existing work.
The structure of the project demanded that each of the curators would produce a freestanding exhibition for their own venue, as well as addressing the exhibition's preoccupation with 'issues of diversity and identity in relation to the theme of "Englishness'''. The Hansard Gallery in Southampton pursued this goal most steadfastly, with works that explicitly addressed ideas of national identity--the English greenhouse, the English breakfast, landscape and coastline--presented in sufficient depth to give each artist an opportunity to show a body of work. In this company work by Jennifer Anyan, a lecturer in media and fashion styling, stood out perhaps precisely because she dealt with individual style rather than group identity, by meticulously tracing and cataloguing particular choices and combinations of clothes and accessories.
In Sunderland the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art constructed an exhibition about the urban condition, including, somewhat surprisingly, work by three architects. The centrepiece of the show, Oliver Payne & Nick Relph's fine early film, Driftwood, 1999, provided a poetic commentary on the privatisation of public space and the loss of public services. But this was a special inclusion, not part of the open submission, and other works in this exhibition felt less specific in their relationship with England and Englishness, more broadly dystopian. One could not escape the impression that this was a theme show that had been waiting in the wings, rather than a selection shaped directly out of the 'North + South' framework.
The Vardy Gallery contrived a playful spin on the central concept of the exhibition, selecting works that dealt with Englishness through a relationship with natural history--a nice conceit that put to shame the dreadful 'Freakshow--An Unnatural History', showing concurrently at Baltic (see Opinion p42). …