I’ve got a bit of a thing about provincial art galleries at the moment, The New Art Gallery in Walsall today and, a couple of weeks, back MIMA – the Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art in, well, Middlesborough. Both newish contemporary buildings in places where you would’t necessarily expect to find them.
The New Art Gallery benefits from housing the extensive Garman Ryan collection of paintings, sculptures, prints and etchings which is displayed on its first two floors; the collection was put together by two women, Kathleen Garman, who had three children by the sculptor Jacob Epstein (some time after which, dear reader, she married him) and the sculptor and painter Sally Ryan. Epstein’s and Ryan’s own work aside, there are serious names featured here – Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Constable – alongside many others lesser known. Displayed thematically – and with some stirring interventions by former resident artist Bob & Roberta Smith – the collection is fascinating and well worth making the excursion to the West Midlands.
Lacking a permanent collection, MIMA depends upon a succession of visiting exhibitions, by far the most rewarding of which when I visited was Derek Eland’s Diary Rooms, based upon the time he spent as an official war artist in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Seeking to bring a new perspective to the ways in which the conflict had been shown, Eland set up a series of ‘Diary Rooms’ in areas where the fighting was at its most intense and asked soldiers to write their thoughts about the conflict and their involvement in it on coloured cards; it is a selection of these cards which form the heart of the display at MIMA, together with a short video and a number of large-format colour photographs.
Not surprisingly, given the directness and honesty – and humour – of the soldiers who agreed to take part, this is a raw and effective exhibition that reaches beneath the superficiality of much war reporting to find something that smells of truth.
Originally intended to close at the end of February, the exhibition has been extended to the 30th April.
Both cards and photographs are collected in a nicely produced book published by The Big Ideas Library, and costing £12.99, £1.00 of which goes to the Veterans Mental Health charity, Combat Stress.