Gallery round-up

17 March 2008

Looking for a dose of culture? Jess Bowie recommends five galleries in and around Cambridge to visit in the new year.

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For those who like to keep their inner culture vulture alive and well, or at least at subsistence level, the Cambridge visual arts scene can often seem a bit innutritious. Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam are all well and good, but apart from those two Titans of the Cambridge art world, surely there’s nothing to write home about?

Not so.

There is there a wealth of local artists living and exhibiting here, and because as a town we’re already on the map, as it were, we also attract some great touring shows. The Terracotta Warriors may not be invading any time soon, but Cambridge is frequently host to impressive collections from the National and Hayward galleries.

Getting out to a new gallery can also give you the chance to explore parts of the city you might not be familiar with, which for many of us means anywhere outside a 50 metre radius of King’s, Trinity, or John’s. The quaint little hamlet of Fen Ditton (etymology: ‘the village by the ditch’) is just a hop skip and jump up the Newmarket Road and is home to an equally quaint little gallery; and anyone truly suffering from Cambridge cabin fever–artistic or otherwise–can make a break for the shires, combining a trip to an Ely gallery with a pub lunch and picturesque walk along the banks of the Ouse.

Babylon Gallery – Waterside, Ely

Once a brewery warehouse, the Babylon is a lottery-funded public gallery overlooking the River Ouse, and is currently host to the Hayward touring exhibition Fleeting Arcadias, whichexplores British landscape photography from the 1970s to the present day.

The show aims to challenge conventional landscape photography, which has traditionally responded to changes in rural life with elegiac images of vanishing folk customs or mouldering ruins. Snubbing such nostalgia, the work on display seeks ironically to expose man himself as ‘the worm i’the bud’ of the British landscape: photos of flare-clad ramblers from the 1970s satirise the tourist industry and its spoliation of the very ‘beauty spots’ it preys on, while huge, quasi-forensic images of road-kill from the late ’90s reveal the other side of an idyllic drive through the countryside. (The latter are about as pleasing to the senses as a poke in the eye with a burnt stick.)

Subtlety is not this exhibition’s strong point: one photographer’s oeuvre consists entirely of photos of Little Chefs, another’s of nuclear power stations.

A highlight, however, is Fay Godwin’s wittier and more understated image, The Duke of Westminster’s Estate. It depicts a vast mountainous vista, stretching as far as the eye can see, with a small sign in the foreground bearing the word ‘PRIVATE’.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology – Downing St, Cambridge

As one would expect from a museum of this ilk, pottery, spear heads, and farming utensils abound. Apart from some East Anglian jewellery of 600 AD, the highlight of the ground floor (which comprises the archaeology section) is the decor: the display cabinets, and the general layout of the gallery–which can’t have been refurbished for at least 50 years–are an archaeological find in themselves.

The world anthropology gallery upstairs is more striking, with floor-to-ceiling cabinets filled with impressive nineteenth- and twentieth-century collections from Fiji, Borneo and Malaysia, not to mention some material from Captain Cook’s voyages in the 1700s.

Also on this floor is The Expiation of Guilt–an exhibition marking the bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act by contemporary Australian artist Gordon Bennett. His disturbing paintings on the themes of racism and slavery, which often resemble nightmarish cartoons, are intermingled with the artefacts. The juxtaposition feels uneasy, but this is the point–Bennett reminds us that such ‘anthropological finds’ often went hand in hand with empire, conquest and slavery.

On the top floor is another contemporary exhibition, Pasifika Styles,whichshowcases works inspired by Maori and Pacific Island Culture by the bright young things of New Zealand art. It all feels slightly London School of Fashion-y, but is fun nevertheless, particularly the surrealism-inspired pieces.

Ruskin Gallery – East Road, Cambridge

The Ruskin Gallery is located in a huge hall at the heart of the East Road campus of Anglia Ruskin University. Alongside shows by invited guest artists, it presents an ongoing series of exhibitions from students and staff of the Cambridge School of Art. The current exhibition is a particular treat–a tribute to the Cambridge School of Art’s most famous living alumnus, Ronald Searle.

Searle, heralded by many as the greatest graphic artist of our time, was born in Cambridge in 1920 and attended the Cambridge School of Art from 1936 to1939. After spending much of World War II in a Japanese POW camp (his sketches from which are now in the Imperial War Museum), Searle turned his hand to everything from advertising and humorous cartoons for Punch, to animation for Disney and gritty documentary/reportage-style drawings. John Lennon counted his art as a major influence and Groucho Marx dubbed him a genius.

In Britain, Searle is probably best known as the creator of the fictional girls’ boarding school St Trinian’s (now a dubious-looking film starring Russell Brand and Girls Aloud). Apparently based on the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge, Searle’s hugely successful cartoons offer a healthy antidote to Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, depicting girls who drink, smoke, gamble, and murder each other with pitchforks.

Ronald Searle: A Celebration runs until mid-February.

Angela Mellor Gallery – St Mary’s Street, Ely

Ceramicist Angela Mellor has been running this gallery–situated in a beautiful seventeenth-century grade II listed building–for just over a year. The main focus is on ceramics, jewellery, glass and textiles, but prints and paintings are also dotted around. The owner herself, who has exhibited all over the world, specialises in porcelain and bone china, and many of her own pieces are on display.

Until the opening of its Valentine’s exhibition in February, the gallery will continue to run its winter exhibition Black and White, featuring work from artists as close to home as Ely and as far afield as Australia. If you like gawping at impossibly delicate eggshell pots it is well worth a visit.

Unlike the Babylon, the Angela Mellor is a commercial gallery, but if you’re not put off by a few unobtrusive price-tags it’s a lovely place to walk around and Angela is not averse to browsers. Ask nicely and she might even take you round the back to show you her kilns.

Lynne Strover Gallery – Fen Ditton

Boatie-types will be familiar with Fen Ditton as the backdrop of the Bumps, but the village also boasts one of the leading provincial galleries in the UK. Originally inspired by visits to Kettle’s Yard, Lynne Strover has been running her self-titled gallery here for the past 18 years.

Like the House at Kettle’s Yard, the stated aim of which was to allow visitors to enjoy art ‘unhampered by the austerity of a museum or public art gallery’, this gallery also has a domestic setting. Indeed, if the personal possessions and retro furniture make you feel as if you’ve wandered into someone’s home, you have: Lynne also lives here.

Although the gallery exhibits ceramics and sculpture, it has, according to its owner, a preference for contemporary paintings, particularly those with a Cornish feel. It has no permanent collection, instead running a series of exhibitions throughout the year, and closing in between. The next of these begins on January 27th and will showcase the work of Kate Giles–a contemporary impressionist who has built a reputation for her striking, semi-translucent depictions of the Suffolk landscape.