We Hope This Isn’t Goodbye: Liverpool Academy of Arts

George Harrison by Deirdre Foy, oil on Dutch metal.

George Harrison by Deirdre Foy, oil on Dutch metal.

As many of you have probably already heard, Liverpool Academy of Arts, a venue which has earned its place on the Liverpool art scene through 25 years hard work and devotion to local artists, is set to be closed down. For a brand new gallery for the city? No. For much-needed artist studios and performance spaces? No. The reason? For yet more student accommodation.

Sculptor Arthur Dooley dreamt of creating a ‘gallery of the people’ and opened Liverpool Academy of Arts at 36 Seel Street back in 1988 with its premiere exhibition of work by artist Mick Lawson. By 1989, recently retired theatrical costumier June Lornie had been persuaded to manage the gallery full time – an enterprise she has maintained tirelessly ever since. Meanwhile, Arthur continued to produce his own work, remaining President of the gallery until 1994 when he passed. In 2007 the gallery moved next door to a bigger space, installed a stage for performances and became a registered charity – a busy year for June and all involved! “We were offered the building next door to have just one exhibition but ended up staying!” June remembers. Run by volunteers, the gallery has since seen many more exhibitions, concerts and even operas.

Marie McGowan has been volunteering at the gallery for eight years and told me that “June has given so many artists their first opportunity to show their work. We’ve seen how they have progressed as they have gained confidence and gone on to build an artistic profile.” Marie has been exhibiting at the gallery herself since 2004 when her art class collaborated for a show, and after that formed art group Collidoscope, who have exhibited regularly ever since.

Cherie Grist, mixed media on wood.

It is important to note that LAA is an independent, non-funded organisation and registered Charity, with a great respect for like-minded ventures. “We love Independents in this city, whether it’s coffee shops, bookshops, bars, bakeries or restaurants, so surely there is a place for an independent art gallery?” Marie asks. This gallery, thanks to June’s organisation and dedication, Dave Lornie’s behind-the-scenes input, and the hard work of a team of passionate, unpaid volunteers has produced over two decades of opportunities and memories for the artists of Merseyside, and it is crushing to think of all this being stripped away for the sake of commercial redevelopment.

The current exhibition Finale! is the last to be held at Liverpool Academy of Arts, and is crammed with works produced by artists from all over Liverpool and beyond. From music-inspired portraits to abstract art and costumes, this eclectic exhibition reflects a talented arts community who will surely miss this space when it is gone.

So how can you help? June is now seeking new premises for the gallery, and welcomes any suggestions. “I feel so sad to have to leave what has been my life for so many years and I have met so many people who have become close friends. 36 Seel Street has been a meeting place, and in my opinion there will never be any place like it again.”

Marie added “A recent comment on our Facebook page said it all, ‘A gift from June to all of Liverpool, I’m so very grateful.’ And so am I, for all the support and encouragement June has given me over the years.”

Liverpool Academy of Arts would like to thank all of the people who have made the gallery a success for the past 25 years; from the many loyal volunteers, to landlord and patron Allan Johnstone who let the building to Arthur and then June. On a personal note, June adds “I would like to wish Sue in the cafe John Cooper, English Rice Productions and the rest of the people who work at number 36 all the luck in the future.”

Finale will be on display at Liverpool Academy of Arts, 32 Seel Street until 28 August. The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday 12-4pm.

This post was written for Art in Liverpool

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The Comedy of Errors, Grosvenor Park

 

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Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre know how to do comedy, that’s for sure. Last summer, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend A Midsummer Night’s Dream (review here), and this time around for The Comedy of Errors, that magical experience continued.

Artistic Director Alex Clifton has managed proceedings for five years now and the increasingly high standard of production, as well as the incredible performances from the hugely talented cast the company has brought together, are testament to his vision. Clifton set out to provide an experience that would “captivate and entrance” his audience; a success of which he can be sure.

This year’s season of “carefree picnic theatre” includes Shakespearean farce The Comedy of Errors, an adaptation of children’s classic The Secret Garden, and bloodthirsty tragedy Macbeth. Having little prior knowledge of The Comedy of Errors, I decided to unashamedly avoid reading up on this particular piece of literature and let the live production, as last time, speak for itself.

The premise of the story is this; two sets of identical twins, separated at birth in truly fantastical Shakespearean style grow up in two faraway cities. When unforeseen circumstances cause one mismatched pair to turn up in the home city of the other, a ludicrous and highly entertaining case of mistaken identity unfolds, resulting in unfounded accusations, misguided seductions and a bizarre string of confrontations none of the characters can even begin to understand.

The show opens with a rag-tag troop of characters performing a series of old fashioned Cockney knees-ups – a musical introduction to the array of contemporary pop hits that would seamlessly punctuate the night’s performance. Kathryn Delaney’s husky southern twang led the chorus, with Max Gallagher’s unexpected proficiency on the accordion providing the musical accompaniment.

The supporting cast were brilliant throughout, providing light relief with slapstick cameos as well as narrating the story with a series of musical interludes taken from the unlikely songbooks of Sinead O’Connor, Whitney Houston and Britney Spears. If this sounds completely out of place, think again. The soundtrack to the show, overseen by Musical Director Harry Blake is perfectly pitched and surprisingly in keeping with the tone of the play, expertly overlaying verses of flamboyant iambic pentameter with a simple recognisable hook.

As well as helping to ‘translate’ the story for the modern audience, these tuneful additions provided the opportunity for the actors to show off their musical prowess, with a full live band making the midsummer performance even more magical.

The two sets of twins, played by real-life twins Danielle and Nichole Bird (Dromio of Ephesus and of Syracuse), and look-alikes Richard Pryal and Thomas Richardson (as Antipholus of Ephesus and of Syracuse) were brilliantly cast and expertly carried the show. A huge fan of Danielle and Nichole following their joint performance of Puck inA Midsummer Night’s Dream (2013), it was great to see the male actors hold their own besides this familial tour de force. Excellent comic timing combined with great chemistry on stage made each pair a real treat to watch.

Also wrapped up in this unlikely tale were Louise Kempton as wife Adriana, who mistakes Antipholus’ twin brother for her husband and becomes entangled in a love triangle she cannot comprehend. Her sister Luciana (Kezrena James) also falls for the exotic twin, but believing him to be her brother-in-law denies her lust. A similar fate awaits the servant twins; Dromio of Ephesus and sister Dromio of Syracuse have never met, and their presence in the same city continues to baffle everyone around them as they unwittingly cause mayhem whilst trying to set things right.

This comic classic of Jacobean theatre proves a fantastic adaptation and continues in demonstrating the capabilities of Chester Performs as a forerunner in the outdoor theatre scene. From a beautiful setting (what more could you ask for?) and great choice of programme, to the talented cast and production team, The Comedy of Errors delivers on laughs throughout and if you’re a fan of a happy ending, well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.

There are just 3 weeks left to see all three shows, and I certainly hope to catch them all before the summer is out! Book your tickets here.

Find out more about Chester Performs, their other projects and their involvement in ongoing redevelopment projectRE:NEW.

@chesterperforms #GPOAT

This review was written for Art in Liverpool

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What’s next for Festival of Firsts?

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Earlier this year, when Wirral Festival of Firsts 2014 announced its full programme, organisers boasted that this year’s festival was set to be the best yet. This may have seemed a dangerous assertion back in May, but Art in Liverpool can now report that it really was: with record numbers of visitors at festival events, more funds than ever before raised for Claire House and many stand-out moments, the Festival of Firsts team can give themselves a bit of a pat on the back.

Amongst those key moments this summer were the “Festi-Velo” and Parade on Saturday 12 July. This day long celebration was led by the Off Pitch choir singing aboard an open-top bus, followed by over 50 decorated bikes, embellished rickshaws and accessorised milk floats, courtesy of Morton Dairies, Hoylake. The Festi-velo was followed by a walking parade of groups such as the Wirral Pipe Band and the Big Easy Jazz men.

The BSide the Cside show on Sunday 13 July was another memorable event. The Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra opened the show followed by a community sing-along version of the Pirates of Penzance, with the Grace Darling driftwood installation by Frank Lund as the back drop. Later on, John Gorman compèred an afternoon medley of musical performances with the Rock Choir closing the show.

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Festival-goers also won’t forget international classical guitar star Craig Ogden’s performance, nor that of poet and comedian Ian McMillan, who teased laughs from the crowd throughout his set. More famous faces appearing in this year’s line-up included Harry Hill, Mike McCartney, Willy Russell and David Crystal as well music from the Wirral Ukulele Orchestra, the Wirral Symphonic Wind Band, the Wirral Community Orchestra, amongst others.

The Festival also enjoyed an array of premieres: from the first Wirral Mass by Clare Madely and John Gorman, to the world premiere of Hyacinth Sweeney Dixon’s play Rosa starring Perri Alleyne-Hughes and the first full production of Tim, an Ordinary Boy by Steve Regan, there were certainly a few ‘firsts’. In addition, Gallery Hoylake encouraged artists to work closely with shop proprietors to develop original window displays, over 120 poems were displayed in shopfronts throughout Hoylake and West Kirby, and Art at the Parade and Art on the Promenade drew record numbers of artists wanting to display their work.

There were also some ‘Firsts’ winners this year, thanks to Wirral Festival of Firsts’ aim to inspire and encourage new work through a series of competitions. Organised in collaboration with Art in Liverpool and Art Club, Steve Deer won the Festival’s second annual online photographic competition with his photo Mr Diggles, with second and third place awarded to Patrick M Higgins and Bel Shaw, who also won the People’s Choice award. First place in the online art competition also run by the festival was earned by Amanda Oliphant, with artists Kevin Adams and Nigel Morris as the runners up.

With so much going on, it’s been a busy few months, so what’s next for Festival of Firsts? Run entirely by volunteers, the organisers are already looking for people who can offer their time and skills over the next year to plan the 2015 instalment. Festival of Firsts is a community association, holding annual public meetings to report on activities and finances and elect their executive. The next Annual General Meeting is open to anyone interested in supporting next year’s event, and it will take place at Holiday Inn Express, Hoylake on Tuesday 2 September, at 7.30pm. There are many roles and responsibilities to suit all interests and availabilities and everyone is welcome to get involved.

For more information about the Festival, visit www.festivaloffirsts.com. For general festival enquiries, please contact Judy Ugonna, Festival Manager 2014 by emailing judy.ugonna@gmail.com or calling 01516322750.

This post was written for Art in Liverpool

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Tell me more about… Chester Film Co-op

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On the bustling city centre high street that is Chester’s Northgate, you will find the area’s very own secret cinema. Chester Film Co-op, on the site of the old Odeon complex is a recent addition to Chester’s somewhat sparse contemporary arts scene.

A new venture as part of a wider redevelopment to turn the unloved street corner into a culture hub for 2016, the Co-op is run by a collective of volunteer members, who bring together local filmmakers and creatives to present their work and collaborate on new projects. At present, the 6 core members of the Co-op are; Caroline Backhouse, Mark Ellingham, Jodie Forshaw, Dan Fox, Nathan Head, Natalie Meer and Mark Smith. The Co-op consists of two spaces; Studio 1, an intimate living room-sized area for screening contemporary artists films, and Studio 2, a performance space used for meetings and pop up events pending artist proposals.

Opened in September 2013, Chester Film Co-op has since hosted four exhibitions, in addition to a series of events and networking opportunities for artists. The current exhibition, Here, includes the work of three North West based video artists with noteworthy international profiles: Paul Rooney, Imogen Stidworthy and Emma Rushton & Derek Tyman.

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The programme of three short films is varied in style and hopefully indicative of the range of work being shown here in the future too. Paul Rooney’s Dust (2006) combines a female monologue telling tales of ships lost at sea with a steady visual of a boat out on the water. As the camera pans endlessly round in a loop about the deck, the viewer realises the peaceful, still vessel is actually hopelessly searching for land. Imogen Stidworthy’sBarrabackslarrabang (2009-10) explores language and culture by interspersing the speech of group of interviewees with ‘rogue sounds’ to confuse the ear of the audience, raising questions of censorship and freedom of communication for minority groups. Lastly, Liar (2013) by Rushton and Tyman references 1960s classic Billy Liar cutting between fantasy and reality as the film’s hero  dreams of a life away from his dreary Northern existence.

You can see the work of the participating artists every Saturday from 12-4pm inside Studio 1, and every evening throughout the week, the same films are projected through the screen onto the window, backlit for audiences to watch from the street outside. The outdoor screenings in particular have had a great positive response from locals so far, which surely indicates a hunger in Chester for more visual art in the city.

Continuing their commitment to showcasing local talent, the next exhibition Emerging Talent will feature the work of film graduates from Manchester, Liverpool and Chester and opens this Thursday 14 August.

chesterfilmco-op.co.uk / @chesterfilmcoop / www.facebook.com/chesterfilmcoop

This post was originally written for www.artinliverpool.com

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Syn-dro.me Sessions 2.0: State-Free State of a.P.A.t.T

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Venturing into a venue you’re not familiar with can be daunting at the best of times. Imagine stepping not only into a different building, but a whole new ‘state’, where your photograph is taken, your name checked and your personal details logged and recorded as you are patted down by a squadron of intimidating gothic officers, each trying to throw you off guard and ensure that by the time you reach the bar, you’re feeling truly lost: enter Syn-dro.me.

A new programme of events taking place at 24 Kitchen Street, Syn-dro.me is the brainchild of artist Nathan Jones, produced collaboratively by local electronic music collective Hive and Mercy, an experimental literature and new media organisation who commission and produce new performance and digital work.

Syn-dro.me Sessions 2.0: State-Free State of a.P.A.t.T featured spatialised sound, visceral visuals and a strong element of interactivity. Not normally one for audience engagement, the promise of “personal and emotional discomfort” had filled me slightly with dread… but the worst was thankfully over. Having passed the initial induction into the space itself, we were greeted by a wall of nightmarish sound, courtesy of a.P.A.t.T, whose two new commissions framed the performances of the evening, each reflecting on a central theme of control in relation to political and emotional agency.

The feeling of dystopia continued with a performance by Rachel Sweeney, whose unique brand of contemporary movement draws strongly from the Japanese dance theatre form of ‘butoh’. Glitch artist Antonio Roberts provided a synth soundscape with psychedelic visuals to accompany her movements, which blurred the lines between recording and live performance as Sweeney mirrored her ‘self’ in the lo-fi film projected onto the screen behind her.

Between each act, guests could mingle in the beer garden, or inside the space, invited back to the performance area in time for the next chapter by one of the uniformed troops who had earlier processed each individual upon arrival. The interior of 24 lends itself incredibly well to this immersive brand of performance art, with the audience invited to sit, stand or lean on and around the ‘stage’, creating an intimate and unified atmosphere.

Next, a surreal performance from a.P.A.t.T. which featured a fantastic violin duet against a backdrop of dry ice and shadows of mysterious nameless figures stretching and reaching out from behind a thin screen. This understated, multidisciplinary performance was my favourite of the night in its simplicity; by creeping up on the audience with a barely noticeable melody at first, I was gripped and full of anticipation by the time the violins kicked in and the grand finale of sound and stimulating visuals ensued.

We then experienced Double V- Cut, ‘a radically dystopian vision of speech and movement exploring the dark materiality of control and dominance, powerlessness and neglect’. As a lone performer read aloud a politically-charged text, a score of dancers enacted brutal, inelegant choreographies against a film of geometric landscapes in stark monochrome. The reader’s voice, coupled with the steadily-building music and increasingly panicked lighting came together in a final act which saw the narrator join the dancers and shake fitfully as he finished his speech, for a second under the strobe lights reminding me of the movements of captivating frontman Ian Curtis.

In the final performance, interactivity from the audience thankfully asked only for us to wave a sea of a.P.A.t.T. flags in response to the arrival of the micro-society’s benevolent dictator. Unfortunately though, the sound levels for this last performance were not quite right and the masked dictator’s speech was lost amongst a cacophony of drums and fanfare.

Speaking to friends and arts aficionados at the bar afterwards, it seems that Syn-dro.me has already come a long way since its first instalment back in April. Syn-dro.me sessions 1.0 and 1.2 were ‘good’, but the second semester in this series is already rapidly attracting more attention, as each event becomes more ambitious, more engaging and ultimately more fun. And why not? An evening of performance and visual art, accompanied by an original electronic score punctuated by live musicians sounds like great fun, and 2.0 really was! Hive and Mercy have identified a gap in the market for a night celebrating artists and original music outside of the gallery environment. Just as you would ordinarily go to an underground gig or private view, why not turn that experience into something to be enjoyed on a Friday night at a bar? For me, contemporary art needs to be more accessible to be appreciated and understood, and by breaking down the walls of the gallery space and introducing live art into a more relaxed, comfortable and familiar setting, Syn-dro.me is achieving this one event at a time.

Look out for the next instalment: Syn-dro.me 2.1: Choros // 21 – 24 AUGUST

This post was originally written for www.artinliverpool.com

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Washing Line Productions: The Surgery

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Promenade Theatre meets Cabaret in this darkly comic satirical performance.

Last Sunday I waved goodbye to the sunshine to step inside The Surgery; a fictional practice within the bowels of the Kazimier, brainchild of writer and director Jennifer Moule and co-writer Alexa Morton.

Described as “a dark farce, which knifes the culture of the nipped, tucked, plucked uber-wealthy who flash the cash” The Surgery delivers on comedy, wit and a dash of good old fashioned silliness.

Exploring unsettling themes about identity and the pressure placed on women to look perfect, Moule and Morton have created a play which challenges the audience physically as we are stripped of our inhibitions and plunged into a living world of eccentrics and a possibly sociopathic plastic surgeon.

I have always enjoyed ‘promenade’ theatre, and this one is no exception: splitting the audience in two upon arrival (into Os and Xs) each group was led by a different performer to explore one element of the story. The group I was in were taken on a walking tour by the fabulously eccentric ‘fashionista and disc jokey’ Giorgio (Giulio Carini) around the Kazimier Garden and back to the Wolstenholme Square entrance, by which point we have encountered many “future clients” for Dr Angapalapagos along the way.

Back inside the venue, we next met another of the Doctor’s employees; an energetic, enigmatic ‘gold digger’ (Kurtis O’Kasi) who educated us on the value of the doctor’s latest procedure aa well as sharing a rendition of one of his own songs.

Dr. Angapalapagos himself, played by Andrew Gruen with an American accent was over the top, arrogant and unsympathetic (and very good at portraying all of the above too!) My favourite character though was his secretary and assistant Angela (Georgina Jones), who despite his continued insults and harassments, clearly doted on the vile doctor eliciting many laughs from the audience throughout the show. Another standout performance came from the surgery’s top client, an It-girl (Jennifer Moule) whose addiction to achieving physical perfection and hilariously boundless need for attention topped off a strangely well-placed musical number about the operation procedure involving the whole cast.

After meeting the somewhat sociopathic doctor, and witnessing “live” surgery in action, we were prompted to book a private consultation with Dr Angapalapagos and sign up to receive our very own gold finger; unsurprisingly there were no takers.

Find out more about Washing Line Productions at jlmoule.wordpress.com

This article was originally written for www.artinliverpool.com

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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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