Out of Chaos | Laing Art Gallery

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OUT OF CHAOS
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne
Until Saturday, February 26

We all have busy lives. We get home tired after a long week at work, put our feet up with a glass of wine, and spend the weekend hoping Monday morning won’t happen. In that mind-set, it’s easy to make excuses to stay in and avoid the rain. I’ve been stuck in this trap myself during January, so when the Laing Art Gallery’s ‘last chance to see’ email for their ‘Out of Chaos’ exhibition hit my inbox, it gave me the kick I needed to get across to see it.

The exhibition has been open since November, bringing work by 20th century heavyweights like Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg and Marc Chagall to Newcastle, many on loan from the Ben Uri Collection. Founded in 1915, the collection aimed encourage the work of Jewish migrants arriving in the UK, and explore themes of migration, identity and fleeing form oppression. The Ben Uri Gallery continues to promote artists from diverse migrant communities, with many contemporary artists working in performance, sculpture and photography also included in this exhibition.

Work by artists forming The Whitechapel Boys form the nucleus of the Ben Uri Collection, and the first room of the exhibition. These artists made important contributions to British modernism around the time of the First World War, employing an innovative use of colour and form to to articulate their shared feeling of cultural identity.

Further in, the German-American artist George Grosz’s satirical watercolours are less subtle in their portrayal of the horrors of the Second World War. German soilders are given brutish, gurning faces to match the savagery of their actions. The frailty of their victims is expertly articulated through quivering lines and a washed out pallet.

Grosz’s use of almost comic-like imagery to explore a difficult subject is a concept also used by contemporary artist Oreet Ashery. Her captivating black-and-white video feels like a riff on a 1920s Charlie Chaplain feature, showing the artist presenting herself alternately as an Orthodox Jewish man and as an Arab man. They repeat exaggerated actions, getting faster and faster until finally the two characters become one.

Recent world events give a new dimension to the exhibition’s emotional impact which the curators couldn’t have anticipated when the show was conceived. Immigration is high on the political agenda, and we are overwhelmed by pessimistic headlines and news stories on a daily basis. It’s all too easy to focus on our own lives, to put our feet up and try to ignore the world around us. This exhibition is a reminder of how important it is to engage with difficult issues, and remember the real people behind the headlines.

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