VISUAL ARTS: Angling for Attention in Three-Sided Pop Gallery; CULTURE Terry Grimley Reviews the New Pop Art Showpiece in Wolverhampton

The Birmingham Post (England), April 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

VISUAL ARTS: Angling for Attention in Three-Sided Pop Gallery; CULTURE Terry Grimley Reviews the New Pop Art Showpiece in Wolverhampton


Byline: Terry Grimley

Wolverhampton Art Gallery's long-awaited pounds 6.7 million extension, providing a permanent home for its outstanding pop art collection plus additional temporary exhibition space, finally opened to the public at the weekend.

Designed, like earlier phases of the gallery's redevelopment, by Bristol-based Niall Phillips Architects, the development provides a new entrance on the Wulfrun Street side of the building, creating a pedestrian link through from Lichfield Street to the university and Arena Theatre.

The initial impression of this linking space, with its bright mix of glass, chrome, white walls and dark, smoked oak flooring and its intriguing glimpses through into the Victorian building, is exhilarating.

Unfortunately, this is not sustained when you step into the actual galleries on the ground and first floors, which, because of the limited space available in the former backyard, are triangular in plan.

If the notion of a triangular gallery seems dubious in principle it proves more so in reality, particularly in the smaller groundfloor pop gallery, where the feeling is not so much of entering an art gallery as a large cubby hole.

This is exacerbated by Wolverhampton's recent tradition of cluttering up displays of art with interpretive material and interactive opportunities.

This isn't at all to my taste, but you can see where the gallery is coming from when you are told that these days many young people don't know who Elvis Presley was and mistake images of Marilyn Monroe for Madonna.

The fact that Wolverhampton Art Gallery has the best collection of British and American pop art outside London is a tribute to the late David Rodgers, its colourful former director who arrived in 1969 and began blowing away the cobwebs of this small Victorian art museum.

Establishing a contemporary art-friendly culture which made Wolverhampton a beacon in the West Midlands and put larger centres like Birmingham and Coventry to shame, he built up a pop-themed collection through the 1970s.

This included not only British art but examples by American artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein (said to be a favourite painting of the artist, and a bargain at pounds 30,000), Larry Rivers and Richard Lindner.

Not everyone appreciated the legacy Rodgers was building. When he bought a small early Peter Blake painting of a cigarette packet for pounds 1,800 in 1980, the local newspaper went into a paroxysm of righteous self-indignation, even working out the cost to ratepayers per square inch.

But while some foolish councillors saw an opportunity for a soundbite, others remained supportive of Rodgers, with the result that Wolverhampton now has a distinctive cultural selling point.

Taking its cue from the pop collection, Wolverhampton's collecting since then has concentrated on representational and socially engaged art.

Its latest major acquisition, now on show, is Resolution, a large installation by Northern Ireland artist Anthony Haughey dealing from a forensic point of view with the massacre at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.

Perhaps surprisingly, the initial pop display leaves out some of Wolverhampton's own major items to make way for a number of large-scale loans from various public and private collections. …

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