Afternoon Dust

Legacies: JMW Turner and contemporary art practice

New Art Gallery Walsall’s current exhibition Legacies: JMW Turner and contemporary art practice brings together 16 works by Turner from the Tate collection with a number of examples of contemporary art that respond either directly to Turner or to the major themes of his work. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, but I’d like to focus on a couple of highlights. The first is a series of sketches from Turner’s Whalers Sketchbook (c.1845), and the large painting Rough Sea with Wreckage from around the same time. What is striking about these works is their focus on colour, reduced forms, and perceived flatness (little or no illusion of three-dimensional space) that to this art history nerd immediately suggests a much later moment in the history of painting, that of Abstract Expressionism.

The design of the exhibition very cleverly allows you to see these works and note the apparent resonances before presenting you with my second highlight, Cornelia Parker’s Room for Margins (1998). While conducting research in the Tate archives, Parker came across a number of canvas liners and tacking edges that had been removed from the underside of Turner’s paintings during restoration work. Besides their unremarkable nature as used byproducts, these support materials each bear a unique patina of age, wear, and water damage from the 1928 flooding of the Tate. Framed and hung in the appropriate setting, however, the liners bear a striking resemblance to paintings in an Abstract Expressionist style, in particular to the work of Mark Rothko.

What sort of attitude is needed to uncover beauty in this dirty, leftover detritus of art production? Certainly one of deep respect and even compassion for the humble nature of ordinary things, but perhaps also an attentiveness to the echoes of art history, be it conscious or unconscious. This latter aspect leads to the pleasure of shared recognition, of making connections across time and across numerous diverse frames of experience. True, some knowledge of the history of Western art both prior to and following Turner is required to be able to join the dots, knowledge not everyone will have had the chance or inclination to acquire. Still, it’s this shared making of connections that gives concrete form to one of the things people value about art, something increasingly rare these days: the occasion to say, I see what you mean.

There’s a lot more I could discuss here, including the influence of Turner’s slash-and-scrape technique on the later seascapes of Gustave Courbet, and Idris Kahn’s every… William Turner postcard from Tate Britain (2004) which smartly obscures and illuminates Turner’s work at the same time. But the best thing of course would be for you to see the exhibition yourself — you have until 14 January 2018.

New Art Gallery Walsall