The trouble with Christmas is the crowds. The London Underground, Oxford Street, Selfridges, they’re inescapable; and made worse by the spectacular lack of regularity to the movement of this sea of people. They move at different paces, different directions, create all manner of obstacles from bundles of shopping bags to those inconsiderate idiots that wait until they’re at the barrier to search for their Tube ticket. On one occasion I was stuck behind someone walking at a third of my pace and veering across the pavement in what felt like a pre-emptive manner to block my attempts to overtake him. I thought him drunk but it was barely half-twelve in the afternoon. He was simply a saunterer, and I had an hour to buy 37 presents and get back to the office for a meeting. The swine.
There is tonic, however, for this fever. And it’s to be found in the art currently on display at the Mall Galleries.
The Mall, between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, you’d think would be inundated with people. But there are no shops. And in Winter there are no tourists. Having rucked and scrimmaged my way from Regent Street through Piccadilly Circus, what struck me most as I descended the steps from Waterloo Place into the Mall’s broad promenade…there was not a soul about, like stepping into another world, and the ideal introduction to my entering the faded wooden door of the gallery…but enough hyperbole, there is a point to this waffle, I promise. Forgive the perilously tenuous link but the title of the exhibition, Art Liberating Lives, was rattling around in my head as I battled the Christmas throng and, given I was early to a press preview and practically had the gallery to myself, it set the tone.
Admittedly, I wasn’t 100% across what I was entering into but that lack of preparation, or expectation, can bring an open-mindedness to a critic’s palate. I knew here was a collective show, a charitable show hosted by Sue Ryder Care, and included pieces submitted by those cared for by the foundation as well as established artists all under the unifying theme; art as ‘liberation’. As you can imagine that offers a broad canvas and I was struck by the array of what was on display, such an eclectic range that I didn’t know where to look first. I took an ordered approach, working my way around the room, one piece after another seeking, if you will, inspiration and as I did so what began to emerge was a sense of catharsis common to each piece.
Sue Ryder cares for people struck by neurological-related illness and, as is evident from the contributions of those artists directly afflicted, here art serves as a form of therapy. That’s not to suggest each is a pained, depressing portrait of suffering, far from it. Among the accomplished landscapes and the variety of media, what struck me most about much of the work on offer is that it feels personal. I don’t mean subjective – arguably all art is that whether you’re the artist or the viewer – but it’s clear that many of these works are rent from personal circumstance and while it’s difficult, therefore, to relate to the artists’ world or be able to empathise, there are some that are particularly moving.
As I walked the room I found myself drawn more and more to those of bearing by the testimonials of the artists; Dan Green’s A Moment for Love, superficially appears to be a portrait of an elderly sleeping woman. But when one considers this captures a moment of peace for a sufferer of dementia, made all the more damning by the ethereal impression of her as a young woman painted into the shadows, it turns from being an accomplished oil painting to something of genuine emotive power. Similarly, Naomi Arton’s paintings of home life, A Very Happy Unbirthday and Fee Fi Fo Fum, while humorous, have added poignancy when one understands where their influences lie.
Allow me to return for a moment to that limp analogy of liberation I blathered on about earlier, for there is a point. It’s to stress that amid this time of merriment and frustration (in equal measure) there are areas of sanctuary available and one of them, for a short while only, is currently at the Mall Galleries in London. It’s not selective, it’s not esoteric, it’s genuinely liberating and edifying and placatory and, as I overheard one of the organisers put it, “There’s something for everyone”. There certainly is.
Art Liberating Lives opened from 16th-20th December at the Mall Galleries, London. The artworks are now available to purchase at the exhibition’s website at www.artliberatinglives.co.uk