Quentin Blake: We Live in Worrying Times
Victor Pasmore: Line and Space
On display until at least November
The short history of Hastings Contemporary art gallery has so far been troubled. Before it was built, it divided opinion. A vehement campaign was launched against what was then planned as the Jerwood Gallery on the site of a coach park, which some argued was more likely to generate tourist revenue than another gallery to rival Margate, Eastbourne, Bexhill-on-Sea and others that they said had already captured the arty crowd.
Others were riled by the appearance of the modern, black-tiled building next to the ancient Stade, the Anglo-Saxon word for landing place, where fishermen have been hauling their boats from the sea for a thousand years.
The building that finally opened in 2012 fits in harmoniously alongside the historic tall sheds, also black, that store fishing gear, but the bickering continued as a dispute with its sponsor the Jerwood Foundation led to the withdrawal of funding and a rebranding: the former Jerwood Gallery became Hastings Contemporary in 2019.
Now it faces the troubles of reduced visitor numbers, social distancing and one-way systems that have disrupted everyone, but it makes a virtue of necessity with its up-to-the-minute “We Live in Worrying Times” by gallery patron and local resident Quentin Blake, which was opened as a digital exhibition before the gallery’s post-lockdown reopening to visitors.
Supremely relevant to our age of anxiety, the origin of Blake’s work predates the pandemic. It was inspired by the comments made more than a year ago by a taxi driver who told Blake “we live in worrying times”.
The result is a 30-foot-long mural, completed in a day that echoes Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica and is entitled The Taxi Driver. It depicts modern-day, traumatised humans, anxiously on the move as if displaced, marching through a hostile, jagged landscape as fighter planes soar above.
The Taxi Driver is accompanied by around 170 new black and white drawings all showing the anxious, restless state of humans traversing harsh landscapes, or tossed at sea and what Blake calls “eroded heads”, bewildered and severed from their bodies.
Strangely, Blake’s fluid, dashed-off style is reassuring as well as worrying in that he articulates and gives a sense of shared suffering in times of fragmented community and crippling uncertainty.
Blake is rooted in the here and now. The gallery’s other current exhibition eschews time and place.
Victor Pasmore stands out for his conversion to total abstraction, which critic Herbert Read described as “the most revolutionary event in post-war British art”.
Like so much else in art, the transformation began with an encounter with Picasso. After visiting a Picasso exhibition in 1946, Pasmore had a radical change of thinking – finding he had reached “the end of the road in visual representation”.
The retrospective of the artist, who lived from 1908-88, shows his evolution from figurative to abstract painting and includes previously unseen works completed near the end of the artist’s life, which were found in a garage at his London home.
The range takes us from works that straightforwardly represent subjects, such as Carnations in a Glass Vase and Mother and Florence, the family maid, who looks on as Mother sews, to Pasmore’s quest for pure abstraction via colour, groupings of lines, curves, collages and constructions of wood and Perspex.
Just as the gallery sits so well in its setting, Pasmore’s minimalism is the perfect complement to the views from the gallery’s giant windows out on to the blackened sheds and the people queuing at safe social distances for the newly-caught fish down below.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.