Alan Davie and David Hockney: Early Works – plus other exhibitions.
From sentimental, ornately-framed Victorian works to John Virtue’s monochrome contemporary land and seascapes, Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery in normal times organises tours of its store every second Sunday that demonstrate the range of its 5,000-strong collection.
In these abnormal times, the tours are cancelled because social distancing is not possible among the sliding racks of the storeroom.
The Towner aims to resume them as soon as circumstances allow, but already the mood is positive as the gallery attracts an influx of staycationers, this week savouring the autumn sun and the last few days of the Alan Davie and David Hockney exhibition that was meant to close at the end of May.
After its reopening on July 22, the gallery was granted an extension to the exhibition first shown at the Hepworth Wakefield. The Towner’s visitor numbers have not recovered to previous levels (around 170,000 a year), but they are climbing from the roughly 50% figure of late July.
The Towner considers itself lucky. While Eastbourne’s theatres are still dark, it is only just over three months behind schedule and is among the galleries of Britain’s coast and other regions that are grasping a role of confident leadership in revitalising communities traumatised by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting transformation of work and life.
“This is a real blank sheet of paper moment for Eastbourne to reinvent itself,” gallery Director Joe Hill said, citing Eastbourne’s increasingly youthful crowd.
Its next exhibition should appeal to them. From September 19 until next May, they will be able to experience the irrepressible energy of the Binnie Sisters, who have selected works from the Towner’s store on their favoured themes of nature, the body, and the meaning and cycles of life, which they have interspersed with their own works.
Christine and Jennifer Binnie are a natural choice for a gallery with a strong local identity. The sisters grew up in the village of Wannock, near Eastbourne, before becoming founding members of the Neo Naturists movement, whose performance art, based on wearing little more than body paint, wrought havoc in 1980s London.
Other Sussex works are more reserved. The Towner is above all known for its collection of Eric Ravilious’ perennially appealing scenes of the Downland countryside and wood-clad Sussex buildings. The Ravilious room, complete with a library and ceramics he designed for Wedgwood, are still locked down.
But that too is an opportunity to discover some of the rest of the Towner collection. Even the Hockney/Davie exhibition, mostly curated in Wakefield, has a local connection as the Towner owns Sea Gate – one of the Davie paintings included.
Of the pair of artists, Davie, who died in 2014, is by far the less well known, but he does not suffer by comparison in this exhibition of 45 of their works, spanning 1948-65.
The painters overlapped as two post-war British artists who veer between the figurative and the abstract, which is another theme of the Towner collection. In other ways, they are poles apart. Hockney’s works are well-ordered and often feature blank spaces. Davie crams full every inch of canvas, reflecting his philosophy that art “life is so strange and so uncontrollable” and yet art somehow controls it.
The Towner’s collection, already nearly 100 years old, plans to carry on harnessing new works.
Also, on display until the end of this week is one of its newest acquisitions – Lawrence Abu Hamdan: This whole time there were no landmines.
The work by the 2019 Turner Prize winner is an eight-monitor installation that uses cell phone video footage with sound and gives the visitor the experience of the “shouting valley” in the contested area of the Golan Heights in Syria.
Because of the natural acoustic, families separated by Israel’s annexation of land from Syria in 1967, can communicate by shouting across the valley.
The anguish of the cries puts our social distancing into perspective.
Barbara Lewis © 2020.