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Artistic Director Bryan Biggs' top five exhibitions at the Bluecoat.

Our Archiving the Arts Centre at the Bluecoat exhibition is only on for two weeks (until Sun 5 May) but you could easily immerse yourself for the whole fortnight in the fascinating material currently on display in the Bluecoat gallery. I’ve been delving into our archive and have selected material spanning over a century since the former school building became a centre for the arts.

There are films, photos, sounds, posters, publications, and lots of other material reflecting the developments in the many arts activities that the building has witnessed: art exhibitions, performances of music, dance, live art, festivals, off site art projects, sculpture in the garden, new commissions, our creative community of artists in their studios, and participation activities. The exhibition history is told through three large projected power points with a total of around 500 slides, many of the images scanned from original 35mm slides.

Here are five exhibition highlights;

1. 1911: Sandon Studios Society Exhibition of Modern Art including works by The Post-Impressionists  
A version of Roger Fry’s controversial show held a few months earlier in London, the exhibition, staged by the Sandon - the group of young artists who moved into the building in 1907, a year after the school moved to larger premises - included works by Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne and others. What makes the Liverpool showing significant is that it was the first time this art at the forefront of European modernism was seen in the company of the generally more conservative British artists, mostly Sandon members living in Liverpool. I have written about the 1911 exhibition in the book Liverpool City of Radicals, and am fascinated by this group of early modern artists in Liverpool whose enterprise setting up an artistic presence in the Bluecoat paved the way for the development of the arts centre that thrives today.

In our exhibition we have material relating to some of those artists, like Herbert Tyson Smith, Henry Carr, George Harris and the remarkable woman who ‘saved’ the building, Fanny Calder. There is a rare painting from 1909 too, by Edward Carter Preston, of St Peter’s Church, painted from the front courtyard of the Bluecoat. His daughter, the renowned ceramicist Julia Carter Preston, is represented by the plaque she designed to mark the Bluecoat Society of Arts’ 50th anniversary in 1977. This used to be set into the wrought iron gates at the College Lane entrance to the garden.
2. 1972: Captain Beefheart
The cult Californian rock musician, a.k.a. Don Van Vliet, was also a painter, and the Bluecoat hosted his first ever exhibition whilst he was touring the U.K. with his group, The Magic Band. He reputedly did the entire series of paintings in one session. There are photos of these bold black and white abstract compositions in the exhibition, plus other material relating to his show, which was organised at short notice by the gallery director Lucy Cullen. You could have bought a Beefheart original for £100 then! (but no one did)

3. 1989: The Paper Boat Exhibition
George Wyllie
took up art when he retired as a customs officer in Scotland. Inspired (and befriended) by Joseph Beuys, he made sculptures and other works, often humorous but always with a political edge. The Paper Boat was exactly that - a life sized boat made to resemble a child’s paper boat, but made of sterner material to enable it to float on the River Clyde. Commenting on the decline of the shipping industry and maritime trade in Glasgow, the project then came to Liverpool.

I wanted to float the boat at the Albert Dock but it proved impossible so we did an exhibition instead of George’s sculptures and material relating to the project. This is represented in the current exhibition by several small artefacts, including a flexidisc of the Paper Boat Song (which is playing in the gallery as part of a soundtrack selected from various audio associated with the Bluecoat arts history) and a special bottle of Becks beer that George designed the label for.  

4. 1992: Trophies of Empire
Artist Keith Piper approached the Bluecoat with the idea to make a new video work based on Liverpool’s transatlantic slave history, in response to the Columbus Quincentenary – the 500th anniversary of his ‘discovery’ of the Americas. Discussions with other venues, the Arnolfini in Bristol and Hull Time Based Arts, helped develop the project into a large-scale programme of artists’ commissions.

In 1992 sixteen artists’ projects, selected from an open submission, were presented at a series of exhibitions and live events in Bristol, Hull and Liverpool - at the Bluecoat and Merseyside Maritime Museum. Entitled Trophies of Empire, the commissions’ focus was on the legacies and imprints of colonialism and imperialism on these three port cities.

We are now showing merchandising from North West artists South Atlantic Souvenirs & Trouble, who presented a ‘trophy cabinet’ of products – tea, sugar, tobacco (three commodities of British colonial trade) – which could be purchased from the exhibition. Each packet contained a picture card, which, once collected, could be stuck into an album, to tell the story of ‘five hundred years of imperial violence, pillage and mayhem around the globe’.
Trophies of Empire at the Bluecoat won the ‘best exhibition’ category in the first Liverpool Daily Post & Echo Arts Awards later that year.

5. 1993: … Cigarettes, Flowers and Videotape by Tony Oursler
When Merseyside Moviola (later to become FACT) were resident at the Bluecoat, we hosted many of their exhibitions in our gallery for about a decade. Leading U.S. video artist Tony Oursler had his first two U.K. exhibitions at the Bluecoat. This one, curated with Eddie Berg of Moviola and the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, was a fantastic show of videos projected onto Oursler’s characteristic ‘dummies’, as well as watercolours and strange sculptural installations.

This year Oursler did the video for David Bowie’s new record. Back in 1993, the Bluecoat presented the video he’d done for Sonic Youth’s Tunic song, a tribute to Karen Carpenter. When Tony was installing the show we talked a lot about music and he was thrilled when I took him to meet  Jamie Reid, the Sex Pistol’s graphic designer, at his home in Wavertree.

In the exhibition there is an image of … Cigarettes, Flowers and Videotape, as well of other exhibitions and live events from the archives of the Bluecoat.  The last three of these five shows I mention are personal highlights, the other two ones that continue to fascinate. We are inviting gallery visitors to tell us what their favourites are too.


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