Thus, while 'Bad Behaviour' charts a subversive streak in contemporary art by giving us a selection of the best - or maybe worst - works of a generation of artists who set out to challenge conventions and overturn established principles and social codes, 'Courting Controversy' gives the viewer an opportunity to compare the 'shock tactics' of today's artists with historical works by artists whose styles were considered shocking in their day.
Exhibition curator, Karen Chapman, says: 'In recent years, the work of some contemporary artists has been described in terms such as offensive, outrageous or even incomprehensible. What we often fail to appreciate is how historical artists, whose works seem mainstream and conventional by today's standards, provoked controversy at the time of their creation.
'Artists of the past caused controversy by responding to new concepts and ideas and confronting old ways of thinking. Many of these artists risked not only their careers, but also their lives, in order to challenge the viewer into seeing the world in new and exciting ways', says Karen.
Take for example the first exhibit in Courting Controversy, Richard Redgrave's elegant mid-19th century oil painting, The poor teacher. Redgrave was one of the few artists who engaged with the social ills of the Victorian era, but socially disadvantaged people were rarely considered as an appropriate subject for art his subject matter was strongly disliked by the middle classes.
Similarly, in his 14th century altarpiece, the Florentine artist Giovanni del Biondo paints St John the Baptist and St Francis as natural, human figures, rejecting the bright, jewel like colours, elongated lines and flattened forms of Gothic and Byzantine paintings. In an age dominated by religion, this emphasis on the humanity of Biblical figures, rather than their divinity, was considered revolutionary.
In Bad Behaviour, on the other hand, some artists take the term quite literally. In Gilbert & George's Gordon's Makes Us Drunk a camera is directed on the artists as they become increasingly intoxicated, drinking glass after glass of neat gin. A giant plastic gnome is covered with cigarettes by Sarah Lucas for her sculpture Willy, while Ultralow sees Jim Lambie smoking his way through an packet of Silk Cut Ultralows, one after the other, in the dark.
Taking recognisable objects and making alterations to their physical appearance, the work of Clare Barclay and Jordan Baseman invokes doubt, fear, and disquiet. Many have associations with the home but hint at darker undercurrents. The bristles, which would once have covered the pole in Barclay's Untitled (pole with shaved-off bristles), are shaved to stumps, making it more a weapon than a brush.
'It will be interesting to observe visitors' reactions to the works' says Karen, pointing in particular to Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry's Spirit Jar. Perry' works subvert conventions of both art and society. Perry has described himself as "a self-confessed hater of contemporary ceramics who only keeps on using clay because pottery is held in low-esteem in the art world". His vases take on traditional forms yet are intricately decorated with all manner of taboo subjects, from scenes of deviant sex to satanic rituals and dismemberments.
'I've watched people look at these, and see their "ooohs" of pleasure quickly turn into "ughhhs' of distaste when they realise what they are actually looking at!' says Karen.
'Bad Behaviour' and 'Courting Controversy' run at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University, until Saturday 14 August. Opening hours are Monday - Saturday, 10.00 am - 5.00 pm. Admission is free. Contact 0191 222 6059; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org ">email@example.com
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published on: 8th July 2004