On Wednesday 02/07/14 I went along to a fancy lunch at Ikon Gallery to celebrate the launch of their 50th year anniversary centrepiece exhibition, As Exciting As We Can Make It: Ikon in the 1980s. The big marquee in the square outside the gallery confirmed my suspicions that this was going to be a tasty affair (veggie lasagne didn’t disappoint), but first I was looking forward to exploring the exhibition.

As Exciting As We Can Make It is an ambitious show that provides a survey of Ikon’s equally ambitious exhibitions programmes from the 1980s. It tells the story of the gallery through what was a difficult and pivotal period in its history, a period which could have seen its demise. Money was extremely limited but the exhibition title, taken from a letter written by former Ikon Director Hugh Stoddart (1978-81) highlights his resolve to deliver an exhibition programme ‘as exciting as I (he) can make it’, despite the difficulties. The sentiment resonates today, as we endure another period of austerity and greatly reduced funding. Through the 1980s Ikon continued to develop into one of the country’s premier venues for contemporary art, as its tenacious directors and staff unveiled challenging exhibitions and international artists in Birmingham. The works in this exhibition testify to Ikon’s vibrancy during this larger-than-life decade and are an eclectic mix in mediums including installation, sculpture, mixed media, photography, painting and video installation. Together they tell not only the story of Ikon but also the story of contemporary art in the UK through the 1980s.

By the end of the 1980s Ikon had gained a reputation as an important venue for challenging installation art, and after viewing the installation works in this exhibition are real highlights. The mesmerising Monsoon (1986) by Charles Garrad, for example, fills an entire room with a life-size recreation of a South East Asian café, caught in the midst of a tropical storm; a jungle hideout transported to the middle of Birmingham. Under an abandoned wooden structure an old TV plays on repeat to the empty tables, whilst water pours down over the corrugated roof and into the dark soil below. The flowing water and the scent of the damp earth make for a calming multi-sensory experience, and I could have sat there all day, soaking it up. In an adjacent room a huge wooden beam is gradually hoisted up by rhythmic D.I.Y mechanical system. The beam is slowly raised up and up, the suspense in the small room building, until the winch releases it and it falls, crashing thunderously against a large sheet of rusting corrugated metal and adding another dimension to the ‘storm’.

Vibrating Forest (1983), by installation art pioneer Dennis Oppenheimer, is another of the exhibition’s standout works. Dominating the large space on the second floor, this monumental work is constructed out of welded steel, lighting parts, a candy floss machine and dormant fireworks, which you feel might explode in your face at any moment – a mixture of dangerous and sweet. It has the sinister air of an abandoned war machine or piece of dormant machinery, lying unused in the gallery. Unfortunately I missed out on seeing the candy floss machine put to good use but the work is impressive nonetheless.

As Exciting As We Can Make It also features several large, powerful paintings that highlight different trends in painting in the 1980s, including a taste for new figurative works. Terry Shave’s Inferno Storms (1986), now in the collection of the Arts Council, is an imposing work that has instant impact when you walk into its presence. It appears to depict an abstract, otherworldly and chaotic landscape, in a hot palette of oranges and yellows that suggests desolation. In the foreground a spindly, form seems caught in the middle of a storm of brushstrokes – the artist’s handling of the paint creating a sense of sweeping motion across the canvas.

Admiral (1981), by Albert Irvin is another of this exhibition’s eye-catching paintings, and a complete contrast with the above. It resembles a painter’s palette, with dots, splashes and strokes in a range of vibrant colours. At its heart is a pool of deep blue that draws you in. Nearby, Gillian Ayres’ Orlando Furioso (1977-9) is another intriguing work. Its surface has an amazing texture that you want to reach out and touch, with layers of thick oil paint one on top of the other pushed into place.

As Exciting As We Can Make It is an exhibition of contrasts, and alongside the installations and paintings there are a couple of intricate sculptures positioned throughout the gallery. The tower room, venue for the ongoing Ikon Icons series, houses Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988), by Cornelia Parker. This shimmering work was commissioned by Ikon in 1988 and returns now, or at least part of it does, from its current home with the Tate collection. It comprises a treasure trove of glittering silver objects – cutlery, dinner plates, coffee pots and more – steamrollered flat and hovering as if in mid-fall, suspended from the ceiling on translucent wires. The silver objects have lost their original functions, now valued solely for their visual qualities. The floating silver objects cast beautiful shadows on the concrete floor below.

The beautiful Flux I (1979) by Shelagh Cluett stood out for me also. This delicate, sinewy work is constructed out of translucent wax and thin slivers of metal. It has an elegant, organic shape and rests, propped up near the corner, connecting the surfaces of the floor and the wall.

There are many fascinating works in this exhibition besides the ones I’ve discussed above. They include the powerful black and white images of Birmingham-based photographer Vanley Burke, and Sue Arrowsmith’s Against Interpretation (1986), both of which are rooted in the politics and culture of the period – the first drawing on the experiences of black and ethnic minority communities in Birmingham and the latter addressing looking and the female form. Rasheed Araeen’s powerful Green Painting (1985-6) hints at the increasingly international outlook that Ikon would pursue into the 1990s, and on to today. I could write a much longer article trying to cover all of them! Hopefully this post gives you a flavour of As Exciting As We Can Make It: Ikon in the 1980s, an exhibition that tells the story of Ikon and of contemporary art in 1980s Britain, drawing on the culture and politics of the decade.


As Exciting As We Can Make It: Ikon in the 1980s is showing at Ikon until 31st August 2014.


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