In Defence of Art Criticism (Not just moaning…)

liverpool3As a writer, reviews and criticism are the building blocks of what I do. Writing about art is a passion of mine, thanks to a deep appreciation for the subject. It is my firm belief that with any subjective body of work (music, literature, film), it is constructive and intelligent criticism which drives ingenuity and creativity, and so I will always champion critical writing.

Another local website, the Double Negative likewise champions critical writing, and this revolution in thoughtful criticism brings a healthy sense of debate to the art world and maybe more importantly, to Liverpool’s buzzing local art scene.

It is in the light of a tidal wave of negative, depressing reviews from big, national papers about Liverpool Biennial 2014 that I write this piece. (NB. My personal opinion of the exhibition is not relevant here). For me, and I’m sure there are many out there that would agree, being an art critic is not about having a moan. It’s not about hating everything and being frustratingly aloof about your reasoning. This apathetic form of journalism is most probably a much wider epidemic, but having kept up to date with this particular series of reviews I feel compelled to take these as my example:

Of the numerous reviews slating the Biennial, one which particularly grabbed my attention was somewhat cheaply entitled “Misery on the Mersey”. A poor pun if ever there was one. Like I said, art criticism is fantastic, but when did it become the in thing to just straight up hate everything? It’s really easy to have a moan, easier than admitting to enjoying something in fact. We all do it day to day; it fuels small talk and can get us through a dull shift at the office. But when it comes to journalism, it’s just plain lazy.

“There is a lot of bad art” says this particular offender. Explanation? Zero. The journalist proceeds to eloquently list those pieces she considers “bad art” but does not tell us what her problem with each work actually is. Conclusion: poor writing, potential lack of understanding but most of all, a desperate lack of ideas. Frustratingly, I have noticed this boring, lacklustre template occur in a few recent arts features and find it infuriating that such writing can be given a platform, when really the writer is saying very little at all.

This is by no means to say that criticism is a bad thing – criticism is vitally important. If a writer likes everything, I believe it makes their opinion less credible and their articles ultimately less interesting too. I have written several honest, negative reviews, and in the past have been shocked when local websites and magazines have refused to publish them, because they don’t “promote” what is being talked about.

It works both ways; as a writer there is no point in promoting something you don’t believe in – it’s just not honest. But it is also impossible to believe in an opinion that cannot be substantiated, as this alienates the reader and makes us question your judgement, and whether a said writer actually understands the topic about which they have written.

There is clearly a huge disparity in what passes for critical writing, particularly in the art world, and this is somewhat problematic. On the one hand, we have journalists who are out of ideas and lacking in everything but bull-headed opinion. On the other, we have smaller, independent publishers who want to keep their readers and more importantly the artists/musicians/organisations they represent happy by awarding them positive publicity. Where does the solution to this critical case lie? The answer remains to be seen.

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Painting the Town Yellow

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You have probably noticed by now lots of yellow Liverpool Biennial signs, banners and billboards around the city. Earlier in the year, we challenged a class of second year Graphic Design students at Liverpool John Moores University’s School of Art & Design to get creative with the Biennial campaign.

Working together with Liverpool Biennial graphic designer Sara de Bondt, and the design faculty at LJMU, we wanted to give the students a taste at working with a professional design brief. We were as impressed as the teaching staff at the University and would like to share their brilliant work with you.

Visible Vinyls

Carl Jones designed a series of recognisable “everyday” objects in the Biennial’s signature 2014 yellow to scatter about the city on walls and public walkways to spark the interest of passers by. The idea is that these seemingly random vinyls will incite intrigue in people walking about the city centre, who will want to find out more.


Traffic Cones

Elliott Balman and Matthew Varker chose to repurpose a traffic cone. Maintaining its existing yellow colour and spray painting the names of the venues for the Biennial Exhibition on each side in black, the students planned to dot these throughout the city as a way of directing visitors to the nearest Biennial Exhibition location.


Typographic Pathways

Charlotte Snelling and Jlona Camenzind thought up a typographic solution to the way finding system; using interesting quotations from each artist to create a map of words through the city streets, the relevant quotations would then lead the way to the work of each artist. Using original stencils they designed themselves, Charlotte and Jlona created their map of creative lettering using yellow chalk-based, easily washable and eco-friendly paint.

“Working on the Biennial brief was really exciting. It gave us an insight into the event and its place in the city. Also, it was nice to get feedback from people who work for the Biennial.”


Viral Videos

Sana Iqbal created a series of short films that placed the Liverpool Biennial logo in everyday places. Sana made her films short, so that they could be easily shared online in a promotional viral campaign.

Family Packs

Charlene Errity created a dynamic family pack, complete with collectible, reusable plastic “tags” for children to play with. Charlene’s idea was that children attending the Biennial could pick up and interact with these tactile objects at exhibition venues, creating their own artwork using stencils in a handy book.

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Liverpool Biennial Opening Weekend


A Needle Walks into a Haystack Exhibition, 2014. Photographs by Mark McNulty.

On Thursday 3 July, Liverpool Biennial 2014 opened to the press and arts professionals from around the world, with the doors thrown open to the public just two days later. Since then, we have enjoyed floods of visitors all weekend and look forward to welcoming many more the next 16 weeks.

Liverpool Biennial 2014 includes the 8th Biennial Exhibition, entitled A Needle Walks into a Haystackwhich features a group show in The Old Blind School, a neo-classical building dating from 1932. This year, amongst new commissions, artists have also been invited to show some of their previous projects. The Biennial group show includes work by Uri Aran (IL), Marc Bauer (CH), Bonnie Camplin (UK), Chris Evans (UK), Rana Hamadeh (LB), Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet (FR), Judith Hopf (DE), Aaron Flint Jamison (US), Norma Jeane (US), Nicola L. (FR), William Leavitt (US), Christina Ramberg (US), Michael Stevenson (NZ), Josef Strau (AT) with Stefan Tcherepnin (US), Peter Wächtler (DE) and Amelie Von Wulffen (DE).


STRAUTCHEREPNIN, A Metaphysical Store, 2014. Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2014. Photograph by Mark McNulty.

Alongside the group show, there are also four solo presentations at venues throughout the city. Legendary French architect Claude Parent has transformed the Wolfson Gallery at Tate Liverpool using slanted floors and ramps and an exhibition devoted to James McNeill Whistler at the Bluecoat includes a recreation of Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Elsewhere, the first solo show in the UK of American artist and filmmaker Sharon Lockhart takes place at FACT and at St Andrews Gardens visitors can flick through television channels to explore for the first time in decades the work of experimental Belgian TV director, Jef Cornelis.

“The decision to get the nonagenarian French architect Claude Parent to transform the ground floor of Tate Liverpool was inspired” Mark Hudson, The Telegraph

Read the full Telegraph review of the exhibition here.

Following two days of Biennial previews, the opening party took place at Camp and Furnace in collaboration with the Kazimier. With a drinks reception followed by the main party, guests enjoyed entertainment from the Harlequin Dynamite Marching Band and music all night long from local DJs within the specially redesigned environment which featured multiple screens, a hidden whiskey den and a pop up food market.

Read our interview with the event’s curator Andrew Ellis.


Harlequin Dynamite Marching Band, image by Pete Carr.

The following morning, we welcomed the public into all of our exhibition venues. As well as the chance to see the Biennial Exhibition, visitors enjoyed a talk with James McNeill Whistler expert Margaret McDonald, and a series of artist talks hosted by co-curators Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman at the Liverpool Medical Institute. There will be a further events series taking place here over the course of the festival, entitled Drinks With

“The final movement, reclaimed from cinema’s clutches, proved a fitting finale complete with a wonderful, shimmering wall of sound” Catherine Jone, Liverpool Echo

On Saturday afternoon, the Biennial took over Liverpool Cathedral for the world premiere of Michael Nyman’s Symphony No.11: Hillsborough Memorial. Following a private recital for the families of the 96, the evening performance welcomed members of the public to listen to Nyman’s new symphony, performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Josep Vincent and with Liverpool-born mezzo soprano Kathryn Rudge and the RLPO Youth and Training choirs. Read the Liverpool Echo review here.


Michael Nyman’s Symphony No.11: Hillsborough Memorial at Liverpool Cathedral. Photograph by Mark McNulty.

Throughout the opening weekend, Islington Mill took up residency in local venue The Black-E with their project #TemporaryCustodiansOf. Read a review of the project here.

To view the full image gallery of highlights from the opening weekend click here.

Liverpool Biennial continues until 26 October, so make sure to keep up to date with our packed programme of events throughout the festival.

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An Iconic Building Brought Back to Life

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Liverpool Biennial has a rich history of restoring and repurposing disused buildings and choosing unconventional exhibition spaces. From Richard Wilson’s memorable commission Turning the Place Over back in 2008 to the countless public realm artworks over the past 15 years inhabiting unexpected locations throughout the city, Liverpool Biennial has always sought to explore and uncover exciting new places to showcase contemporary art.

This year, more than 16 artists will show new and existing work inside The Old Blind School as part of the 8th Biennial Exhibition A Needle Walks into a Haystack.

The Liverpool School for the Blind was founded by Edward Rushton in 1791, and was the first such school in the country. A series of five illustrated art deco relief panels on the outside of the building dating from 1932 show the life and work of the school, including images of students reading Braille, basket weaving and piano tuning. This iconic building then became the headquarters for Merseyside Police and later housed The Trades Union Centre, before transforming into The Picket, a recording and performance venue which gave the young and unemployed an opportunity to realise their musical talents in the 1980s.

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Catch-22 at The Playhouse

unnamed-3Catch-22: If you’re crazy, you’re not fit for combat; but admit it and the doctors know you’re sane, and you’re sent back out to fight.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is the reality B-25 bomber pilot Captain Yossarian (a fantastic and moving performance from Philip Arditti) is faced with 55 dangerous flight missions into World War II. Trapped in a world of contradictory orders and double meanings, his team of bombardiers struggle to make sense of their situation, and to keep the balance between what duty dictates, and what they know to be just.

Catch-22, based on Joseph Heller’s iconic 1961 novel is presented by Northern Stage at the Playhouse. The story is at once complex and simple, a commentary on the toxic impact capitalism has on human intent, relentlessly critiquing the power-hungry and dim-witted authorities coining these nonsensical rules.

Christopher Price as Milo Minderbinder, the barracks’ one-man stock exchange embodies this idea of ludicrous capitalism, as he apishly repeats his mantra of “what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country”; a line clearly stamped on his consciousness from superiors intent on war profiteering.

The doubleness of bureaucracy is best captured in the guise of Major Major (David Webber), whose very name suggests the ridiculous paradoxes facing men at war. Ever keen to avoid confrontations and anything like hard work, the major makes several hilarious bids for freedom from his office window throughout the play, in an act that typifies the authorities’ lack of concern for the men on the front line.

The play explores paradoxes not just of military life, but adult life in general. Characters find themselves swept up in absurd and frantic dance numbers as they engage in serious and life-changing conversations, whilst seedy goings on at local brothels and clubs are realised in miniature in the wings of the stage. Just visible, these vignettes of chaotic war time life on the fringes of the action suggest the madness looming ever closer to Yossarian’s band of brothers.

Fantastic performances include Christopher Price as the Texan, Geoff Arnold as the sympathetic barrack Chaplain and Michael Hodgson as the hilarious and repulsive Colonel Cathcart, whose Monty Python-esque movements and expressions serve to portray the ludicrous hierarchy which exists in this world. Even in moments of the darkest, most extreme caricature the incredible script and acting talent are able to strike a nerve with the audience and resonate with Yossarian’s plight. Simon Darwen as the harbinger of doom cries out to the men from a crackling microphone at the side of the stage, detailing their next dangerous mission whilst crudely swinging a baseball bat…“its Bologna boys! Bologna!”

This overall feeling of madness and danger is enhanced by the production’s incredible soundtrack and lighting directed by award winning designer Charles Balfour.

Witty, fast-paced and darkly comic, the script is the definition of satire. With a stellar cast, well versed in the laws of comic timing and easily gliding between the multiple roles each actor embodies, the show is a sure-fire hit and set to get audiences thinking about the real dangers of war and power.

Catch-22 enjoyed a season at the Playhouse until 31 May 2014. This post was originally written for Art in Liverpool.

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Museum of Liverpool: ‘From There to Here’ Enough?

unnamed-2Over the bank holiday weekend, I took time out to go and see two exhibitions at the Museum of Liverpool that I’d been looking forward to, especially given the important messages they purport to communicate to visitors; From There to Hereand April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady.

From There to Here is an exhibition which claims to explore how people with learning difficulties have been excluded from historyAs a concept, I was immediately drawn to this exhibition, as the very fact that the museum is tackling any kind of societal prejudice is something I consider a brave and forward thinking action.

Unfortunately, although From There to Here encourages visitors to acknowledge a select set of incredible individuals, the content of the exhibition itself is lacking, and does not delve deep enough into the dark history of how such people have been mistreated and ostracised for hundreds of years.

The exhibition features a series of photographs taken by Mark McNulty of the People Like Us project, which has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Using ‘my first day at school’ as the starting point for the project, participants from Wicked Fish and Moving On With Life and Learning (MOWLL), an organisation dedicated to promoting social inclusion for people with learning difficulties, talk about their experiences of their first day at school and the troubles they faced during childhood and their school years. It is inspiring to see the Museum acknowledging such issues and the photographs and interview footage are great in portraying the fact that the people involved in the project are valued members of society today, living ordinary happy lives.

Next comes a series of information found in historic public records each telling the story of a UK citizen with learning difficulties. This so called ‘story’ charts only the birth date, doctor’s misinformed prognosis, and year of death of each person, without mentioning anything about the struggles they faced during their lives. Without this context, the pictures of MOWLL and Wicked Fish mean nothing; without there we cannot visualise the leap to here, and how far society has come and how much the quality of life for people who have a learning difficulty has improved.

It is admirable that the Museum has dedicated some time and space to raise awareness about prejudice in society, but it is disappointing that the issues from the past could not be explored in more depth. In a city where we proudly expose the barbarity of slavery in a wonderful dedicated museum, when will we be ready to acknowledge the horrifying treatment people received in institutions and asylums throughout history, and even in the last century? It feels like this is an issue perhaps too close to home to explore thoroughly right now.

April-Ashley-c-Ken-Walker-238x300Next, I visited April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady. Dedicated to the story of one of the first people in the world to undergo pioneering gender reassignment surgery, the exhibition explores issues of gender prejudice in great detail, with excellent historical context and images to accompany the story of her life.

A fascinating timeline, depicting milestone events in Liverpool-born April Ashley’s life alongside historic moments in the global struggle for Gay and Transgender Rights uncovers some shocking truths: throughout history, homosexuals and people receiving gender reassignment surgery have faced persecution, and it is horrifying to discover how so recently important basic human rights have only just been granted to this section of society. For example, transgender individuals are still banned from serving in the US army, and gay, bisexual and lesbian men and women were only legally allowed to serve since 2011. Why should this be, and how does sexual orientation affect a person’s ability to serve their country? Important parts of life, such as the right to marry or be treated equally in the workplace are still unavailable to trans and homosexual individuals in parts of the western world, with far worse penalties for expressing gay or transgender  feelings or ambitions rife in other parts of the globe.

This exhibition strives to uncover many unsettling truths and to relate the struggles that April Ashley underwent as a teen, and throughout much of her adult life in the name of equality. It is fantastic to see such issues highlighted and debated so publicly, and refreshing that this is all happening in a Museum open to school trips and the general public to enlighten and educate our city. April Ashley has achieved a great deal during her lifetime and it is important to honour her role in how far LGBT equality has come.

It is somewhat disappointing, however, that we can explore the history and struggles of transgender people in such detail, but our museums still are not ready to allow the country to own up to its sordid history and lay bare what actually went on in Institutions for people with learning difficulties. Where Portrait of a Lady details the electro-shock treatment April Ashley was forced to undergo as a form of ‘cure’, the museum ignores the bewildering and inhumane penalties inflicted on people with learning difficulties over the centuries.

Both Portrait of a Lady and From There to Here explore themes of prejudice and the darker side of human history, but the latter could have been explored in so much more depth, even with a simple historical timeline of events, in order to depict a truer representation of humanity’s ugly past. The Museum of Liverpool must be admired for tackling two such important issues in these coinciding exhibitions, and Portrait of a Lady in particular is a groundbreaking exploration of LGBT history to date.

From There to Here is on display at the Museum of Liverpool until 13 July 2014. April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady continues until 21 September 2014.

This post was written for Art in Liverpool.

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Under Milk Wood, Liverpool Playhouse


Liverpool Playhouse, 19 May 2014

Perhaps one of Dylan Thomas’ best known plays,Under Milk Wood is enjoying a successful run at the Playhouse Theatre this week to mark the centenary of the playwright’s birth.

Thomas tells the tale of twenty-four hours in the life of a small, fictional Welsh fishing village called Llareggub, where almost forty characters live. The simplest of narratives is woven into a complex structure, as the huge variety of characters are performed by a small cast, each playing up to four or five different parts throughout the performance, which can make this particular piece a challenging watch.

Not so for this adaptation of the original radio play; directed by Terry Hands and starring his company of Welsh actors, this is a superb rendering of the timeless tale. With such an elaborate set of characters, it was great to see how each actor, with a subtle tilt of the head or lowering of the voice could transform into a new persona completely. Production design by Martyn Bainbridge also helped, as the simple, plain costumes made the company uniform, and so every character trait came straight from the actor’s charisma and talent, rather than costume changes and disguises.

The story begins whilst the citizens of Llaregubb are deep in sleep, and a pair of narrators wander into the village to demystify the affairs and eccentricities of the interesting residents there from sunrise until sunset. From drunken sailors and star-crossed lovers, to murderous husbands and cheating wives, Thomas presents a cast of highly unlikeable characters, each somehow boasting their own unique and comic charm, making them improbably sympathetic in spite of their foibles.

My favourites of the play included Mr and Mrs Pugh -  an obnoxious and cruel woman whose husband secretly plots her demise in multiple extravagant daydreams throughout the day, whilst Mrs Pugh chews her food. Played by Sophie Melville and Richard Elfyn these two actors really stole the show for me. Other great characters include the obsessively clean and tidy Mrs Ogmore-Ptitchard (Hedydd Dylan), who dreams of her two dead husbands Mr Pritchard and Mr Ogmore, demanding they recount their daily chores to her as she sleeps.

The set itself also deserves a mention, as the beautifully simple stage comprised only of a few chairs and a curving, tilting ring around the performance space upon which actors could climb, lie and sit, enabling them to embody each new role. At the back of the stage is a huge, globe-like sculpture of  Llaregubb, about which a sun moves throughout the performance, indicating what these gossiping villagers are getting up to at each hour of the day.

Highly energetic, funny and original, this new adaptation of a classic definitely deserves a watch!

Under Milk Wood continues at the Playhouse until Saturday 24 May. Book your tickets here

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