A nation without art is a nation that does not talk to itself and has lost interest in its past and hope of a future. That was the position of the old Wales, where talented individuals had no audience, outlet, context, support or infrastructure so long as the Welsh experience was marginalised and ignored within Britain. Now there is change in the air, and in post-devolution Wales the first stirrings of an exciting new era for the visual arts have been made manifest by the opening of Wales’ first ever National Museum of Art in an extension to the National Museum in Cathays Park.
It’s been a long time coming. A national art gallery is a bellwether institution; no self-respecting nation would contemplate being without at least one. Edinburgh alone has 5 such galleries to show the breadth of Scottish art, while London has 10 dedicated to British (ie: English) art across all its genres and periods. Wales though has always had to wait interminably for essential facilities long after they were established everywhere else, and you can rest assured that even this barely adequate new gallery would not exist had there been no devolution.
And a few extra rooms bolted onto the back of the National Museum must only be a starting point. The almost entirely unknown treasures of Welsh art require full-scale, dedicated buildings, not annexes to already overstretched facilities. The fact that less than 5% of the publicly-owned art of Wales can be shown at any one time – the remainder gather cobwebs in the storage centre at Nantgarw – shows how far there is yet to go.
Extraordinary Welsh art has been shockingly sidelined for centuries, either because London-centric opinion didn’t know it existed, or because indigenous artists electing to stay in Wales instead of crossing the border to ‘make it’ were dismissed as ‘narrow’ and ‘parochial’ by the colonisers’ cultural watchdogs. But the days of Wales as a cringing British nonentity denouncing and denying Welshness are numbered. There is a developing self-belief born of the realisation that unless we address our own communities then sure as hell nobody else will. More and more artists stay in Wales and make Wales, in all its multiplicity of barely explored identities, their subject. The untapped potential of the many vibrant artistic communities in Wales urgently demands another national gallery, to show modern, contemporary art by the living – a sine qua non for every European capital. From Ankara to Reykjavik, they’ve all got at least one. All, that is, except the capital of Wales.
Here, to give just a hint of what’s out there, is a brief selection (in alphabetical order) of artists who could contribute to a very interesting Welsh National Gallery of Modern Art:
JOHN ABELL – Cardiffian Abell uses recycled material to explore narratives with intricate, intense, innovative woodcuts and wood block prints. He’s currently working on ‘the largest graphic novel in the world’.
IWAN BALA – Painter of sophisticated, dignified symbols of Welsh upheaval, living proof that immersion in one’s own locality requires an internationalist outlook.
BRENDAN BURNS – On huge canvases or on small boards Burns contemplates the rocky, damp edges of Wales with gripping immediacy.
CHARLES BYRD – Now in his mid-90s, Byrd’s amazing career has gone from the raw naivety and precise detailing of his 1950s/60s depictions of everyday Cardiff life through to today’s kinetic sculptures of ‘magic machines’ made from recycled materials.
IVOR DAVIES – A pioneer of performance art who fuses ancient history and legend with the politics of modern Wales, sifting through art scholarship for radical stylistic devices to tackle the tough issues most avoid.
LOWRI DAVIES – Ceramic artist who skilfully alludes to the ‘best’ china displayed on generations of Welsh dressers.
TIM DAVIES – Installation artist exploring the outer zones of Welsh identity with the subtle use of artefacts. He dredged up a single nail from the lake that drowned Capel Celyn and replicated it 5,000 times in wax to form a ghostly carpet.
CARWYN EVANS – Using mixed media, photography and installations with emphatic economy, Evans examines the Cymrufication of Cardiff from the perspective of an internal immigrant.
PETER FINNEMORE – Poetic and multi-layered photography and video probing the nuances of Wales through bizarre tableaux set in his own Llanelli garden.
DAVID GARNER – Passionate, evocative assemblages of thrown-away items, seething with vivid political rage.
RUTH HARRIES – Working with textiles, fibres and scraps of fabric stitched onto boards, Harries deals direct with routine anxieties: shapes in the night; grappling with the Welsh alphabet; seeing her daughter onto the school bus.
DAVID HASTIE – With solemnity and humour Hastie makes looming, insistent, ramshackle structures out of the debris of rural and industrial Wales, intriguing environments where the imagination can let rip.
CLIVE HICKS-JENKINS – His powerful, painterly canvases and cute artist’s books clarify the universality of Welsh rootedness.
NEALE HOWELLS – Meticulously accumulated random marks, messages and graffiti jostle for space on discarded planks and any recycled material to hand, resulting in a haphazard beauty. Spluttering outrage from the likes of the Western Mail at works such as Peasant Shit and The Last Erection of Christ has resulted in two cancelled exhibitions and police and council tearing down a hoarding in Cardiff – precisely the response Howells was seeking. Oh, how we laughed.
SHANI RHYS JAMES – Welsh-Australian who came home and invented new ways of placing figures in settings of poignant domesticity.
PHILIPPA LAWRENCE – She wraps the trunks of skeletal dead trees in thread to create hallucinatory landscapes.
ELFYN LEWIS – Alarmingly bold and implacably non-conformist lashings of hyper-vivid colour and texture.
MARY LLOYD-JONES – Wales, its scars and its memories, presented as an expressionist carnival in full technicolour.
SALLY MATTHEWS – Sculptor of fascinating animals naturally integrated into their sites and seemingly having a life of their own.
SALLY MOORE – Surrealist painter of womanhood, vulnerable but coping, in weird, unsettling, hyper-real scenarios.
JOHN MEIRION MORRIS – Sculptor who has produced a towering, majestic work for the banks of the lake at Capel Celyn, a community destroyed when the Tryweryn valley was flooded in 1965 so that Liverpool could have a free water supply. Morris’s monument, a magnificent metamorphising creature with lamenting choir, is currently displayed in New York and £250,000 is required for it to be erected in its rightful place by the lake (donations to: Cofeb Tryweryn, Ty Newydd, Llanuwchllyn, Y Bala LL23 7TL).
OSI RHYS OSMOND – Teacher, writer and painter of forgotten landscapes filtered through memory and myth.
ANGHARAD PEARCE-JONES – Artist-blacksmith whose incisive installations deal with modern Wales by using the discarded detritus of superseded Wales – an explicit critique of the haste in which the past is obliterated in the name of never-ending ‘regeneration’.
TIM PUGH – Environmental artist creating stunning ephemeral works out of found material in site-specific locations. On beaches, cliff tops, mountains and tree trunks Pugh reclaims Wales as a shared land.
JENNIE SAVAGE – A sustained investigator of Cardiff through documentary projects out in the streets, challenging the notion that a city is just an economic entity. Her STAR Radio and Anecdotal City are timeless archives of the Cardiff resistance.
JOHN SELWAY – Outstanding draughtsman who uses imaginative techniques and deep knowledge of art history to paint vivid, visionary images. He hit a new peak with the dark lyricism of his Dylan Thomas-inspired Fern Hill series.
ANTHONY SHAPLAND – Working in film, the curator and founder of Cardiff’s adventurous exhibition space g39 (relocated from Wyndham Arcade to Oxford Street, Roath, in 2012) keeps watch over a Cardiff in twilit states of flux, trembling with anticipation in a permanent limbo.
KEVIN SINNOT – Masterfully controlling his paint, Sinnot presents the people of south Wales grabbing life’s consoling pleasures.
JACK SULLIVAN – Detailed, absorbing, warts’n’all studies of old Tiger Bay.
ANDREW VICARI – He’s alive, he’s from Port Talbot, therefore he’s a contemporary Welsh artist. Worth £92million at the last count, thanks to 30 years as official painter to the Saudi royal family, Vicari gets peeved that he isn’t put in the same bracket as Rembrandt. For me, his figurative flatteries wouldn’t look out of place on a biscuit tin, but Vicari somehow transcends these limits by pining for Wales in his dotage.
CATRIN WEBSTER – Welsh landscapes reinterpreted by colour and gesture as transforming journeys.
BEDWYR WILLIAMS – Caernarfon’s serious prankster celebrates diversity and undercuts class divisions with surreal comedy in sculptures, paintings, photos, posters and performances.
SUE WILLIAMS – Leapfrogging post-feminism, Cornish-Welsh Williams dissects girliness with spontaneous, dripping oils and ballsy collages.
Pictures: Cardiff Central Library; National Museum & Galleries of Wales; National Library of Wales; Newport Museum; Tim Pugh; Catrin Webster