Saturday, November 7th 2015
We started today by heading down to Waterloo. We had breakfast in Marie’s Cafe in Lower Marsh, a no frills establishment that is a cafe by day and a Thai restaurant by night. Suitably fortified for the adventures ahead, we found our way to Leake Street, close by. I have mentioned this famous street a number of times before (see, for example, Gallery Closed, Leake Street open).
Leake Street was once, as far as I know, an ordinary street along which vehicles and pedestrians freely passed. Its unusual nature is owing to the fact that it runs under the railway station and is therefore covered over for most of its length, forming a tunnel. When Leake Street was closed to vehicular traffic, its blank walls and ceilings proved irresistible to graffiti writers and street artists alike. Today it is known widely by its soubriquet, the Graffiti Tunnel.
Street art – or graffiti art, as some still insist on calling it – is allowed in the Graffiti Tunnel. A large enamelled notice board at the entrance declares as much – or would do so, had it not been painted over by artists needing yet more space. As a result, Leake Street has become a place to visit, whether by tourists or by art lovers such as ourselves. In common with other street art sites, the Graffiti Tunnel presents an ever-changing gallery of paintings. Barely has the paint dried on today’s masterpiece before it is overlaid with a new one. This makes it worth visiting at regular intervals to see what has survived and what new works have appeared.
To tell the truth, we were somewhat disappointed today. There were few paintings that really stood out and declared their presence. It was all rather dull. At present there seems to be a fad for graphics, by which I mean paintings consisting of letters. So many artists are doing this that I think it can fairly be spoken of as a fad. It’s not for me to say whether this is real art or not but I can say that it doesn’t interest me at all. It’s boring and does not stir the imagination. I don’t waste my time photographing it.
On a Saturday you would expect to find some activity in the tunnel and, happily, we found some. Whether by design or coincidence, five sets of artists were in the preliminary stages of creating new works, giving us a chance to observe their techniques.
Some artists paint their pictures directly while others start by sketching outlines – some using pre-cut stencils – which they later fill in. Each method has advantages, no doubt, depending on what the artist is trying to achieve.
Street art paintings are often huge is size, sometimes stretching the height of a whole building. Also, artists, ever in search of space to exploit, often work in awkward places, some above normal ground level. Thus ladders, work platforms and even JCBs and cranes can be pressed into service. This artist is using a metal platform to reach the tunnel roof where he is painting a female face.
Street art has become immensely popular with the public in recent times. People make a point of looking for paintings and of photographing them. As a result, artists are becoming used to being watched as they work. In a sense they have become performance artists. Curiously, public and artists seem largely to ignore one another. On the other hand, artists seem to be on friendly terms and to be happy discussing their respective works or cooperating in joint projects.
Artists were not the only busy folk. Two men washing a motor vehicle with hoses made this attractive interplay of water-fog and light.
We next moved to the Southbank Centre to see a special exhibition of award-winning art works. This exhibition is called RE : FORM. Organized by the Koestler Trust, it presents works by inmates of prisons and secure institutions that have won awards for their excellence. It is hosted by the Southbank Centre and admission is free. Photography is allowed and you can visit the exhibition on your own or follow one of the free tours, as we did. Our guide was not a professional guide but, as an ex-inmate himself, was able to throw interesting light on the exhibits and draw attention to points that we might otherwise not have noticed.
There was a wide variety of artworks which included sound, paintings, sculpture and some other less common categories such a soap carving (see below). Each work is accompanied by a label stating its provenance and other details. In a number of cases, the artist’s name was not stated and where it was, it was limited to the first name only. I have chosen a few samples of what we saw.
From Guernsey Prison (artist’s name not given), this sculpture is made of discarded items. Our tour guide expressed surprise that an inmate would be allowed to collect and keep objects that could conceivably be used as weapons or to make skeleton keys. The artist’s own statement is ‘The prison started doing recycling for outside agencies and I got hold of some leftover unrecyclable pieces… The measurements are of the bust of Sir isaac Brock [made] on his 200th anniversary’.
I found that the exhibition lighting made it difficult to photograph some items because of unavoidable reflection. The brain seems to tune this out but the camera isn’t so clever! Also, some works were in a narrow passage and could be photographed only from the side, giving a distorted image (see the example on the left). I was able to compensate for this to a certain extent using software, though this has possibly added distortions of its own. The corrected version follows below.
No artist’s name or comment accompanies this painting from HM Prison Schotts.
These three portraits in acrylic were grouped together – perhaps because of their similarity in size and subject – though two are by one artist and the third by another. In order, left to right, details are given as follows:
1. Title: It’s Barbie, B***h, artist: not indicated, location: HM Prison Dovegate
2. Title: Portrait of Amy, artist: Neil, location: HM Prison Whitemoor
3. Title: Cheryl, artist: Neil, location: HM Prison Whitemoor
There were a number of poems on display, all typed out anonymously on matching paper. I chose this one as my example because of its directness and emotional punch, abetted by a confident brevity of expression.
This work, tagged Staffordshire & West Midlands Probation Service, is from a collection entitled Winter Gods, by a poet named as Mark. His work has merited two prestigious awards, a fact that surprises me not at all after reading just this one poem. I hope a time will soon come when this writer will feel able to publish his work under his full name and receive due acknowledgement and credit.
The label for this painting from HM Prison Schotts lacks a name for the artist but bears a comment: ‘This work is about Kim Jong Un, the power he wields, the cruelty of the North Korean regime and his strange view of the world’.
This was certainly one of the more unusual exhibits: bars of soap used to make miniature sculptures. They come from HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs and are by a sculptor known as Ben, whose comment is as follows: ‘The odour of prison soap… is rarely neutral to those who’ve encountered it. It hibernates deep in the psycho-olfactory system, waiting for that one sniff that for a split second will take you back in time, back to the reception desk, collecting that unwelcoming welcome pack’.
This painting from HM Prison Cookham Wood is by an artist named Daniel. The title is in a sense a pun because it refers both to the inscriptions on the wall and also to the young man’s predicament and its meaning, as is explained by the artist: ‘Hopefully this will show a picture in people’s heads of what prison feels like… to show people not to come here’.
This picture, which beautifully captures a tender moment between parent and child, comes from HM Prison Grendon and is by an unnamed artist who comments in these words: ‘There’s not a day that I don’t think about the mistakes I’ve made and the opportunities I’ve missed, one being having kids and being married. I wanted to capture the bond between a parent and child’.
My next and last example is a picture with which I was much taken. It combines an unusual technique with a naturalistic representation of the subjects. I would like to see more paintings by this artist. Now follows a confession:
When I examined the photo, I found it marred by reflection of the spotlights. So I, um, repaired it. I doubt whether any but the most forensically inclined of observers will notice the difference. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything…
The artist is named as Leroy, located in HM Prison Stafford. There is no artist’s comment but I think the picture speaks for itself. There is a timelessness about it and you – well, I, at any rate – can almost here the murmur of voices as the three ladies, so different from one another and yet so similar, converse.
The tour guide continually made the point that prison life is characterised by boredom. The inmates whose works are shown in this exhibition have discovered a way to conjure boredom and to provide a means of self expression as well. The exhibition revealed many different attitudes to the experience of prison, and real artistic talent is to be seen among this set of competent and often highly original works.