abstract art, a systems view

The Public: Owamya?

with 8 comments

In the Black Country “How are you?” is “How am you?” or rather “Owamya?”


We took our son Joel to The Black Country, to Sandwell General Hospital West Bromwich, for an A.C.L. operation, and waiting, we visited The Public. (It was famous in the UK when it was built, for being late and way over budget.  No Public city is bad Public city, we’d heard of it and sought it out.)

It’s an art space and not an art space. they call it ” a creative, community, cultural and business space in the heart of West Bromwich…Sandwell – today one of the most deprived areas in the UK but with a long history of creativity, innovation and community pride which changed the world.”

There are exhibitions as well as interactive galleries:

My interactive drawing on a touch screen

my wife Dawn's interactive drawing

Judith, one of the staff (she’s wonderful) showed us some of the exhibits, and explained some Black Country slang, using one of the interactive pieces (a fridge magnet type activity – all the interactive things reminded me of games and that reminded me of how much game and play is part of what ‘creativity’ means).

Judith explains that 'fust' is 'first' in Black Country lingo

“Fust” is first and “bist” is been: “hows he bin?” “he bist fine” (?)

When I saw one of the words I couldn’t resist an homage to Barnett Newman (I continue to want to see abstract painting in art spaces)

vir heroicis sublimis (not)

Sorry, corny I know.

The exhibitions included Out of this Universe, featuring models, costumes and props from Dr Who, Star Wars, etc


In the Best Light: Maurice Broomfield, industrial  photographs


and, The Art of Invention: From the Frank Cohen Collection, contemporary art including some paintings! (No abstract paintings though. Is it that because there are none in the Frank Cohen Collection? Perhaps it is because they are thought to be less relevant than figurative work? In the ‘about’ section of their website I read: “The Public also has a role in making the arts more accessible to a community which traditionally has low participation in the creative industries”. I would argue that abstraction is particularly relevant and accessible in this industrial context.)

The industrial photographs were magnificent. To me, they seemed to capture the hope and excitement of industry at the same time as its monotony and false promise. The images somehow looked both modern and dated at the same time. My pictures here don’t do the setting justice. Whilst the whole downstairs does have this pink colour pervading everything, here I didn’t perceive it the way the digital camera does. In fact, there was lots of daylight and the photographs looked great. These were also the nearest thing to abstract paintings.

The work from the Frank Cohen collection included some interesting sculpture

Patrick O'Reilly, Quiet Desperation 1996

Patrick O'Reilly The Leader Speaks, 1995

The Patrick O’Reilly sculptures were witty and spoke to my feelings of alienation in a (post-)industrial world, but visually rather unsatisfying. I felt similarly about the Till Gerhard painting

Till Gerhard, Wochenendhaus, 2004, Acrylic on canvas

It was interesting (not witty) and I looked at it a lot. I got that the painterly marks could be sinister and associated the red with blood and the pink shapes with internal organs, possibly the wire from the boy’s microphone resembling intestines, or certainly something unpleasant. I felt like I should be able to work out why the eyes were obscured with an unpleasant red mark, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t sure if the fir-tree was growing or cut, a Christmas tree and maybe the coloured marks suggested that it was decorated. Lots to look at yet, in the end, I felt unsatisfied, like I wanted to find something in the paint to enjoy but found my enjoyment was repeatedly barred. I felt slightly sick. Perhaps that was intended. I didn’t like that experience very much. Though I did go back to the work again before we left… and I don’t always do that!

Another painting I didn’t like:

Steve Canaday, Double Death Honk, 2002, Acrylic on canvas

though again, I have been thinking about it since, so it must have done something.  What I have found myself remembering is the bland grey ground on which the painted objects are placed, and working out how he achieved that with acrylic paint. The exhibition notes tell me that Canaday’s work is an example of the LA based practice called “Bad Painting“. What I thought was most bad (I mean it in a bad sense) was that again any enjoyment of the paint I may have hoped to experience was thwarted. I also had the impression that the artist gained no enjoyment in painting it.

Even though my wish to see abstract painting was unmet (painting has become a marginal activity it seems, and abstract painting even more so) I am glad I saw this work.

The Public is well worth a visit, even the cafe is reasonably priced, most unusual.

On leaving, we missed out on the tea-dance, mostly because we didn’t have our dance shoes with us (Joel was ages yet in recovery). Apparently as many as 100 people turn up to dance every other Wednesday afternoon, and being keen ballroom, latin and  sequence dancers ourselves we would have enjoyed that too!

Written by Andy Parkinson

May 13, 2011 at 6:55 am

8 Responses

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  1. This place looks great! I want to go now.


    May 13, 2011 at 8:52 am

    • The piece Quiet desperation freaked me a bit as only a few nights ago I had watched a docu I recorded on the Khmer Rouge prison Teoul Sleng. The strange mannikins with their ashy consistency and volume in numbers all looking out at you somehow reminded me of the prisoner shots at the Cambodian prison so I was more spooked by the piece than I might have been had I gone a different time.

      Heather (Sandwell)

      June 10, 2011 at 5:54 pm

  2. “no public city is bad public city” – excellent! As a Black Country native its always interesting to read others’ impressions.

    • Hi, thanks for commenting. When I first started to visit the Black country I really didn’t like the place, but over time I have come to like it a lot.

      Andy Parkinson

      May 14, 2011 at 8:41 pm

  3. very ironical:
    Patrick O’Reilly The Leader Speaks, 1995


    May 17, 2011 at 1:59 pm

  4. Yeah, it has a sensor and when you walk up to it the fan starts, blowing air over the heads of the led and they sway slightly in response to it.

    Andy Parkinson

    May 17, 2011 at 4:31 pm

  5. […] I visited The Public in West Brom‘ recently (see my previous blog) I saw that painting that was a good example of ‘Bad Painting‘ (bad painting being an […]

  6. […] doesn’t mention The Public in West Brom’ probably because it is not strictly a contemporary art […]

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