Scratching beneath the surface

A new Wearside art show and book takes a hard look at our society over the past 500 years and asks if it has changed and how?

Politics, class and money are three of the trickiest conversation topics around.

But a new Sunderland exhibition is ripping off the plaster and having a good prod at the issues that get people going around the dinner table.

Rank mashes together classic masterpieces and leading modern artists in 200 works that questions how we see ourselves.

The show opened at the National Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA) on Fawcett Street last Friday.

Gallery director Alistair Robinson worked like a Trojan to bring the collection together.

And the work paid off, with prize paintings like Derby Day, by William

Powell Frith, on show for the first time in Sunderland.

The painting was unveiled in 1858 at the Royal Academy in London and was so popular it had to be guarded by a railing and a policeman.

Alistair said: "Derby Day is one of the Tate Gallery's most prized paintings so it's a very special treat to have it here.

"We had to put forward some very strong arguments to have it here as it's rarely loaned out."

But Derby Day is not the only coup in the exhibition.

There are additional masterpieces on loan from the Arts Council Collection, The British Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, Working Class Movement Library, Saatchi Gallery, British Museum and the Frank Cohen Collection.

And the exhibition is not just about the big names. Alistair said: "We have 500 years-worth of art from all sorts of incredibly diverse sources – things that haven't been valued but which are wonderful documents from their time."

Rank is the sort of exhibition where you can spend a long time – there's a lot to see and some of it is pretty weird, like an early sociology study from the 1800s by journalist Henry Mayhew showing "the intensity of ignorance" across England.

There are cartoons, sculptures, charts, maps engravings, photographs, oil paintings and graphic design pieces to see and all the exhibits are paired together to show contrasts.

Artist Ben Branagan and his work partner Gareth Holt produced 13 different art works for the show after Alistair approached them.

Ben, 30, said: "Alistair asked us to take data and statistics he's collected and turn them into visual forms."

Ben and Gareth used cakes, textiles, pin badges and measuring sticks to turn social and economic numbers into thought provoking art.

Ben said: "It was a great project for me and Gareth and I also helped to produce the book which accompanies the exhibition.

"It was very interesting to see the historical interpretations in there. It made me realise that while things have changed in some respects but there are still massive economic divides – society hasn't changed as much as I thought."

Artist Adam Latham, 28, contributed Which One Ought You To Wear? a modern take on a historical campaign.

He said: "I took the idea from First World War posters I saw in the Imperial War Museum.

"I wanted to look at the fact that joining the army is now a choice rather than something you have to do, yet there aren't that many good career alternatives for young men who are limited academically.

"My cousins went to Iraq a couple of years ago.

"It was that or working on the docks."

What is most striking about Rank is the contrast between the exhibits.

It begins with Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan from 1651, an engraving looking at social order. Symbols of guns, crowns, castles and churches sit below a giant King character wielding a sword and sceptre.

The King's body is made up of the masses, thousands of tiny people crammed together to represent the wider population.

The monarch is the protector, watching over the towns and countryside, while his arms are a metaphor for fighting arms, the army made up by subjects.

This early example of social imagery is melded with recent commentaries like Victor Burgin's Possession.

Possession was fly-postered around the North East in the 1970s and was

designed to be an anti-advert encouraging people to participate in politics.

It shows a young, good-looking couple hugging and reads "What does possession mean to you? 7% of our population own 84 % of our wealth."

A lot of the work on show is funny, too.

Sunderland artist Misteraitch has contributed If At First You Don't Succeed which shows parliament on fire and makes reference to Guy Fawkes.

So even though the show looks at serious social issues, it's not meant to be gloomy or hard work.

Alistair said: "Lots and lots of things have changed.

"The distribution of wealth has obviously changed enormously though this has slowed down over the past 30 years and become more unequal.

"The exhibition has to have some sort of balance. There's no point saying that things are unfair and unequal because that's always been the case.

"It's more about how we can see recognise that and see a bigger picture.

* Rank is showing at the NGCA until July 11.

Admission is free, for more information call 561 1235.

The 144-page illustrated book about the exhibition is 9.99 from the City Library and Arts Centre or via www.cornerhouse.org/books