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Wandering around Wakefield: The Hepworth Wakefield and the YSP

8 Sep

The train journey from London to Wakefield is surprisingly quick although it’s not particularly exciting.  But I was in good company with my friend from up North who loves trains and is also extremely knowledgeable (damn him) – a particularly useful companion who was able to tell me about everywhere we passed through.  Grantham, for example, is home to the UK’s only living pub sign which consists of a beehive of South African bees.  I was disappointed we didn’t have time to stop for a drink there (but it was only 10am) – maybe next time.

The Beehive.  Image via www.flickr.com/photos/historyanorak

The Hepworth Wakefield is visible from the train but to get its full impact I think you need a sunny day.  The grey industrial concrete matched the sky and I wasn’t feeling that excited.  The architects have called the exterior colour Hepworth Brown and this has caused much debate.  In the light, I think it’s more of a greyish lilac but on Tuesday it looked dreary, until we arrived outside and felt the confidence and power of the building.

The Hepworth Wakefield. Own photograph.

Like Turner Contemporary, it’s designed by David Chipperfield Architects and there are similarities, not least the use of concrete.  The Hepworth is very exposed and isolated; it rises from the River Calder, like an old mill or Venetian palazzo.  There is no proper front or back.  Instead, with water on two of its sides, the building is intended to be seen from all directions.  With this in mind, Chipperfield wanted to produce a three-dimensional site that could be accessed from different levels and sides and so conceived this structure, consisting of ten geometric forms.

The Hepworth Wakefield. Own photograph.

The building itself is intended as a giant sculpture that can be circumnavigated.  Although it’s not meant to re-create a large Hepworth, it does aspire to Hepworth-like qualities.

The galleries are located on the upper floors and are sized according to the scale of the works, with smaller rooms for earlier works and larger ones for the temporary contemporary pieces.  It is rare to find a building designed around the artwork it houses but this is and that makes it very special indeed.  The inside brings the space to life.  None of the rooms is rectangular – the building
tilts and twists and turns in an ambitious way.  The pitched ceilings provide changing atmospheres and light streams in whilst water flows outside.

The Hepworth Wakefield.  Image via www.hepworthwakefield.org

You’re either going to love this confident concrete composite or hate it but it’s certainly not shy – it’s very much in your face.  Whereas Turner Contemporary is relatively modest in both scale and design, the Hepworth is intended to stand authoritatively and make a statement.   The building is a serious, enigmatic space that rejects the sterile, white-box gallery space to which we have become accustomed.  It is gorgeous, it’s different and far removed from the dreary building I was anticipating from my initial impression on the train.

The gallery celebrates Barbara Hepworth a native of and aims to put the spotlight on Yorkshire and modern British sculpture.

The first gallery is dedicated to Hepworth’s own sculptures, exploring the quality of her work.  There’s no mucking around here.  The gallery is inspired by Hepworth and they get straight to the point.  Sadly, the sculptures have to be displayed in Perspex cases but they are brilliant nonetheless.

Gallery 3 at The Hepworth Wakefield. Image via www.hepworthwakefield.org

Whereas our natural instinct in a room is to turn left, strangely, gallery two is on the right.  After this confusion, you continue into Wakefield’s own art collection – mostly a very eclectic mix of Modern British Art with works by Ben Nicholson, Jacob Epstein, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Patrick Heron and others.  There’s a very unusual Hepworth drawing, Tibia Graft (1949), from when she was invited to observe an operation at the Princess Elizabeth Hospital in Exeter, and a stunning John Piper, Entrance to Fonthill (1940).

The galleries then continue to concentrate on Hepworth considering her in the context of the period, her relationship to European contemporaries and the spirit of artistic exchange, offering an exploration of her studio environment that provides a unique insight into her working methods.  The cabinets in one of the rooms have drawers that, annoyingly, cause an obstruction and knock into your legs; in spite of this they are definitely worth opening.  Gallery five displays the incredible Hepworth Plasters which, to my mind, are cluttered and deserve more space.

Gallery 4 at The Hepworth Wakefield. Image via www.hepworthwakefield.org

I had no idea the collection here was so extensive and, next, there is a focus on Yorkshire art with some wonderful images (including a Turner sketch) of the Chantry Chapel that stands outside the gallery.  A cleverly hidden seat by a large picture window even invites visitors to sketch the Chapel themselves.

Hot Touch, by Eva Rothschild, features 16 new works created especially for The Hepworth combining a wide range of media that includes fabric, leather and wood.  The works often make use of the forms and strategies of modernist art – squares, triangles, holes and repetition alongside a myriad of visual associations and symbols.

Eva Rothschild exhibition. Own photograph.

Rothschild’s new works seek to engage with Hepworth.  Although at first glance they seem to be polar opposites, the shapes used by Rothschild pay homage to many of Hepworth’s works, meditating on material and form.  Making use of the walls and ceilings, you can tell how brilliantly these pieces have been constructed for the space.  Stairways (2011) hangs powerfully from the ceiling with hands for fixtures.  Glimmers of colour contrast Rothschild’s use of black outlines and striking forms, showing off the works to their best advantage.

Eva Rothschild exhibition with Stairways in the back corner.  Image via www.artreview.com

It’s a great exhibition but, unfortunately, the building is still new and, therefore, garnering most of the attention and critical acclaim.  For me, Hot Touch was the icing on the cake, showing off how great this space really is – a calm and contemplative cavern for viewing art.

Back outside, I headed for a closer look at The Chantry Chapel, on the medieval bridge over the Calder.  It is the only survivor of four original chantries in Wakefield and the oldest surviving bridge chapel in England.

The Chantry Chapel.  Own photograph.

Wakefield itself, although a little rough around the edges, and not necessarily somewhere I’d want to explore alone, is a real gem.  My walking tour of Wakefield took in The Grand Clothing Hall (a brilliant building from 1906 in the Italian Renaissance-style), Barclays Bank (not just because I needed more cash but to take a look at the impressive sundials that have made it famous), 57 Westgate with carved heads over its windows and entranceways, Theatre Royal, the Magistrates Court, the Town Hall, the old Court House, the Masonic Hall and so on.  It’s endless and I can’t possibly begin to detail everything.  Wakefield has produced a cute little pamphlet detailing what there is to see with a helpful map but I had the perfect tour guide so, for once, I always found myself in the right place.

Theatre Royal. Own photograph.

It’s important to look up in Wakefield.  At street level, there’s the usual array of take-away restaurants, bars and pubs (admittedly, some very good ones), strip clubs and the like but crane your neck and there’s really some fabulous architecture to be found.  There is also modern sculpture dotted around the city – a wood and metal work by Andy Green representing the modern digital age on the Wakefield Media Centre, Seams by Oliver Barratt taking inspiration from seams of coal refers to Wakefield’s mining history.  So, to anyone who is a bit snooty about heading to Wakefield I say think again.  I missed sampling its nightlife as we had a 9pm train and, although I’m assured I was missing out, I think I was pleased to head back before the town began to party.

Andy Green at the Wakefield Media Centre. Own photograph.

15 minutes by car from the centre of town is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and you can’t do Wakefield without also visiting there.  Spread across 500 acres of eighteenth-century landscapes ground and three indoor galleries, is an array of exhibitions, sculptures and installations.  I hadn’t expected to have time to do this so, while everyone else was sensibly attired in raincoats and wellies**, I was in high heeled boots – the perfect clothing to amble across the Yorkshire moors in the howling wind.  After about ten minutes the rain came pouring down and, sheltering under a tiny umbrella, we realised this wasn’t the day for it.  Sadly, we didn’t even manage to cover a quarter of the park and it’s somewhere I must return to…in walking boots.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Own photograph.

The parts we did get to see were stunning, with sculpture emerging proudly from the rugged landscape, hidden in nooks and crannies and perfectly complementing the undulating grounds.  We made it to two of the indoor exhibitions: Emily Speed’s Makeshift was a bit too basic for my liking, exploring the temporary and the transient by referencing both architecture and body.  The exhibition includes a floating, boat-like structure on which Speed sailed on the lake at the YSP.  Maybe if we’d seen this we’d have felt differently about the exhibition but it didn’t quite grab me in the way the other pieces did.

Emily Speed, Makeshift. Own photograph.

Both indoors and outside, Jaume Plensa’s exhibition, however, is brilliant.  His silent, contemplative sculptures focus on contradictions of the human condition and emotions.  The works are varied – a cut curtain of chiming steel letters fills the main corridor, sculptures that seem lit from within and white alabaster heads that are elongated and almost anamorphic.  A dimly lit room filled with gongs, that reverberate deeply when hit, was mesmerising.

Jaume Plensa. Own photograph.

As we trudged back up the hill longing for a drink and trying to avoid the sheep shit, my companion helpfully, with just a tad of sarcasm, pointed out that I was lucky to be in heels as my shoes had a smaller surface area!

I was home not long after midnight.  Don’t rule Wakefield out – it’s amazing what you can do in a day.

**It’s a good job I check my posts through as my computer had auto-corrected this to say willies!

All of the photos from my day out can be seen at www.facebook.com/chloenelkinconsulting.

Eva Rothschild: Hot Touch is at The Hepworth Wakefield until 9th October 2011, www.hepworthwakefield.orgEmily Speed: Makeshift is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 18th September 2011 and Jaume Plensa is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 22nd January 2012, www.ysp.co.uk.

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