The art of the matter

Artist: 'Barrie West.
Artist: 'Barrie West.
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Q. HOW many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A. Fish.

That joke isn’t the limit of my modern art knowledge but it’s pretty damn close.

Which is why artist Barrie West, who is holding an exhibition of his work at Dalton Park, challenged me to fight.

That, and the fact, that I once made some scathing comments about one of his paintings in this column some years ago.

I wasn’t, however, going to lower myself with a public brawl against a middle-aged man in a multi-coloured apron wielding a paintbrush. It would be undignified, counter-productive and, most importantly, he might beat me.

Actually, when I say fight, the word he used was “chat”. Yeah, I know how these modern artists work.

The “chat” turns into a debate, blows up into an argument, voices are raised, then fists, men dressed as medieval knights and a troupe of trombone players suddenly appear before the shouting match descends into an unseemly brawl … all caught on camera.

Two months later, the video of the punch up is projected on to the side of a stuffed elephant in the Baltic under the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being III (A Sunderland Perspective) and a Turner Prize short-listing is in the bag. You know how it works.

That said, in the interests of fair play, and the fact I had to travel to Dalton Park to collect a birthday gift for my wife, I agreed to meet Barrie and take a look at his exhibition.

Hearts and Minds features the work of Barrie and textile artist Angela Sandwith.

Looking through the window on arrival, all the cliches were there.

First up, the headless mannequin of a silver-plated child sporting shorts and a T-shirt with over-large brightly coloured price tags dangling from each severed limb.

Don’t tell me: “Faceless corporate consumerism robbing children of their childhoods.”

No, I was looking through the window of the Nike shop. Hearts and Minds was next door.

Barrie was first to greet me. Smiles, firm handshake and not a medieval knight in sight. Good start.

Ironically, the first artwork on display was a headless mannequin in a dress. On closer inspection, the orange dress was made with Sainsbury’s shopping bags. It was one of Angela’s and was a comment on consumerism. But I wasn’t here to shoot down Angela’s work. Barrie was the man for me.

A large abstract painting and, alongside it, a poem about childhood was our first stop. It was a Jackson Pollock-style splash of colour. Nice, but nowt special. It was a bit like those optical illusion pictures where, if you stare at them long enough, a three-dimensional antelope suddenly appears. Nothing was appearing. We moved on. There were pictures of children behind glass on the floor.

Some of the pictures had been smashed with a breeze block. These were about Iraq, said Barrie, and the suffering of children from depleted uranium left over from bomb blasts.

Childhood cancers have rocketed in Iraq since hostilities began.

“All the children are affected,” said Barrie. One of the pictures of the children was untouched. Barrie said I could smash it with a breeze block if I wanted. I didn’t. Crikey, this was serious stuff. As subtle as a breeze block, you could say.

Next up was a display of what looked like torn pages from books. I asked Barry what they were.

“They’re torn pages from books,” he said. They were the torn last pages of books along with, at the end, a broken matchstick.

What could this be about? War, pestilence, plague … no. It was about annoyance. Library books with last pages torn out, wanting a cigarette only to break your last match! “It’s humour Richard,” Barrie told me. Art shouldn’t always be taken seriously. I was quite enjoying this.

My favourite was photograph of a child playing with a toy soldier, above her a bright blue sky.

“I like this one,” I said. “I’d put that on my wall. What’s it about?”

It was about how the sky means something different depending on where you are.

Bright and beautiful if you’re a child in England, something much different if you’re a child in Iraq. On closer inspection, the bright blue sky had been created by melting blue soldiers together.

For children in Iraq, said Barrie, the sky can, and often does, bring death.

Hmm, that puts things into perspective. Too much blooming perspective, to paraphrase Spinal Tap.

The rest of the exhibition was equally as through-provoking, amusing and interesting to look at, and this small column can’t do it justice.

Barrie had won the fight, and without a drop of blood being spilled or a trombone dented. Go see for yourself.

* Hearts and Minds, The Art of Barrie West and Angela Sandwith is on display at Dalton Park shopping centre, Murton.