A City Of and For Painters: Refractive Pool

Mike Pinnington from Double Negative gives his thoughts on our Refractive Pool: Contemporary Painting in Liverpool and highlights 5 artists that represent the variety of artists Liverpool has to offer.

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Liverpool has long been known as a city of and for artists. Formally at least this thinking can be traced back to the earliest years of Bluecoat (at least as we know it today), when a mixture of incoming Bohemians took up residence there in 1907, forming the Sandon Studios Society. More than a century on, the city’s cultural reputation is in-part built on its vibrant independent artist scene, with a wealth of studios and galleries calling Merseyside home. Bridewell Studios, The Royal Standard, Arena Studios and, indeed, Bluecoat in Liverpool. Over the water in Birkenhead, there are the likes of Alternator Studios and Existential House. And, slightly further afield, Runcorn’s Hazlehurst Studios. All of these and many more contribute to a rich eco-system of artists, almost hiding in plain sight. 

But beyond sporadic encounters with relatively small-scale exhibitions, how does the wider audience get to hear of and see the work of the many artists based here?

Two such artists – Josie Jenkins and Brendan Lyons – were no doubt asking themselves similar questions when they came together to initiate what would become Refractive Pool, a project that set out to explore contemporary painting in Liverpool. Beginning with talks and events, it would spawn a book and, ultimately, an exhibition curated by the pair, platforming the rich and varied community of painters that were drawn to and celebrated by the project. The exhibition at the Walker includes twenty-one artists based in the city; what struck me about the work on display is that it demonstrates a real diversity – of styles, movements, and talent.     

Below, I’ve selected five such artists, ones that I think provide a flavour of this, but who we might also consider to be just the tip of the iceberg. 

Photo of artist David Jacques in front of his painting of various pipes connecting in one great mass
David Jacques in front of his artwork 'Beaufort Sea Phantasmagoric' at Walker Art Gallery. Photo: Robin Clewley

David Jacques

David Jacques’ cluster of works, Beaufort Sea Phantasmagoric, responds to the unplanned wrecking of the colossal Shell drillship Kulluk, which drifted aground in the Arctic Ocean in 2012. He has said: “It portrays a series of views of the stricken vessel; subsea oil pipes emerge on the horizon performing grotesque contortions.” And through his lens, the Kulluk does indeed take on a life of its own. A leviathan sea beast, it is all flailing biomorphic forms, squirming and weaving as it does battle against the elements. You can almost imagine the defeated roar as, strength failing, the Kulluk slips beneath the surface to its watery grave. Ironically, its forms bear more than a passing resemblance to the optimistic skewed cubism – or ‘tubism’ – of modernist Fernand Léger. A century on, however, Beaufort Sea Phantasmagoric is no celebration of the current age – more accusatory finger pointed at the horror of a Frankenstein’s monster created in the name of fossil fuel exploitation.          

Anna Keskemety
Anna Keskemety 'Mirror' in Walker Art Gallery. Photo: Robin Clewley

Anna Ketskemety 

There are horrors beneath the surface of Anna Ketskemety’s works, too, which are like dark fairy tales waiting to be completed by the viewer. As with many fairy tales, our sweet expectations of them are belied by sombre themes. Ketskemety has said that “grief, loss and regret” anchor two of her works included here. Smoke finds a woman returning our gaze. Hands thrust in her pockets, she is dressed head to toe in black; a plume of titular smoke hangs in the air. The last drag of an unseen cigarette, or something else, something more otherworldly? Baby, as the wall text explains, is in correspondence with another, much older painting in the Walker: Giovanni Segantini’s The Punishment of Lust (1981), is part of a series of works on the theme of evil mothers. Finally, Mirror – on which the artist has painted the back of a woman’s head – arouses our sense of the surreal as well as the idea of the treachery of images so effectively exploited by René Magritte. In the picture I took of it, I appear to be in front of this woman; and yet, I was in fact behind her at the time. Which version can we trust? Memory or the photograph? At once haunting and playfully seductive, Ketskemety’s paintings are tantalising portals to other realms in which things are not quite as they seem. 

James Quinn
James Quin 'Solaris Suite' in Walker Art Gallery. Photo: Robin Clewley

James Quin

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic and mysterious 1972 film Solaris, cosmonauts are faced with their murky pasts when ‘visited’ by the phantoms of people they’ve wronged or failed somehow on Earth. Artist James Quin riffs on this idea to explore “where meaning might lie between original and copy,” using it as the departure point for his Solaris Suite, which features works reproduced from the film (including those by Gustave Dore and Pieter Bruegel the Elder). As in Solaris, this provokes certain philosophical and ethical questions. Who is the author? What was their intent? What does it mean when works are replicated and presented within new and different contexts? Such questions have long loomed large in art historical debate, and Quin’s paintings – mounted on a timber frame so that some are clear while others elude the eye – encourage and reward investigation.       

M B O'Toole
M.B. O’Toole 'Gesture [Series 2]'. Photo provided by artist

M.B. O'Toole 

“May a brush mark be compared to a word, a sound – a note vibrating in space?” Bernadette O’Toole is an artist engaged with a different set of questions. In her case, you could argue, these questions began with abstraction (when the likes of Piet Mondrian named works, like pieces of music, as compositions), ran through conceptual art, and continue to instigate lively conversations to this day. For O’Toole, these ideas find expression through what the artist calls “gestures”. In what could broadly be described (it seems to me) as expanded forms of painting, she incorporates a multitude of disciplines (painting, sculpture, installation, etc.) to re-imagine “the space of painting through the space of writing”. It’s fascinating to consider how O’Toole interrogates how one might inform and complement the other, resulting in works that intrigue and captivate, and that could, at first glance, be made by different artists altogether.       

Millie Toyin Olateju
Millie Toyin Olateju in front of her work 'Untitled' at Walker Art Gallery. Photo: Robin Clewley

Millie Toyin Olateju

There is an unmistakable and irresistible warmth that draws one to the paintings of Millie Toyin Olateju, whose work I first came across online via her Instagram account. As is so often the case, when it comes down to it, the in real life experience of art is so much more vibrant than one mediated by the digital realm. And, reading the text that accompanies her Untitled work in Refractive Pool, it is made clear that she too is in dialogue with key movements from art history. Her practice, she says, draws from the well of surrealism, abstraction and collage to name but three, producing a “multifaceted existence beyond the racial bias” experienced as a woman of Nigerian and English descent. While it’s not crucial to know this to appreciate the work, it does anchor it, giving weight and different textures to the flowing colours and shapes that fit together like a jigsaw of different artistic and cultural touchstones.  

It is possible to think of Refracted Pool in much the same way – a jigsaw of Liverpool’s painters, from which you can lean into and spot different ideas, trends, and discourses. As I remarked at the outset, this city has long been thought of as a place of and for artists of all stripes. This status must not be taken for granted. Projects such as Refractive Pool being platformed by institutions like NML are crucial to the ongoing health of Liverpool’s creative output, of Liverpool’s creatives full stop. We must acknowledge artists, nurture them, and hold them close. Similarly, audiences must have opportunities such as this to see, discuss and celebrate their work. Art, given appropriate visibility, provokes conversations, inspiring others and opening the way for yet more to come.