Not quite as much of an expedition as finding the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague, but it is still an adventure to reach Damien Hirst’s new Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, London, though a relatively short walk from several underground stations through the railway arches which split the area in two and which support the main rail line into Waterloo and which runs at high level opposite the new gallery. Here too a former factory has been converted to a contemporary art centre; in this case there is over a century’s heritage of creativity as the buildings were originally built in 1913 as paint scenery workshops to service the growing needs of the west end theatres.
The volume of the original spaces which have been retained is immense as they were designed for the manufacture of an entire theatrical set; this provides a fantastic volumetric scale to the central galleries within the new complex designed by architects Caruso St John. The sculptural staircase is back – as at Tate Britain, Caruso St John repeat their dexterity at staircase design, something also achieved by Wilkinson Eyre for the Wellcome Collection in Euston. In Newport Street, three well-designed, elegant, geometrical staircases connect the two floors and cleverly turns visitors back on themselves without realising it.
Damien Hirst has established the gallery for a changing programme of exhibitions to show his collection of over 2,000 artworks to the public (and also hopefully some of his own work). The gallery provides six different spaces which can be used in a variety of combinations. “It’s my Saatchi Gallery basically,” he told the Observer in 2012. “It’s a place to show my collection of contemporary art. It feels bad having it all in crates.”
The opening exhibition presents large-scale works by the leading British abstract painter John Hoyland (1934-2011) painted between 1964 to 1982 and covers the different stages of his work – the 1960’s paintings with their coloured shapes floating freely from the canvas edge, and the early 1970’s paintings with rectangular forms set against textured backgrounds, developing into the more dynamic and work of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, full of embodied energy.
“Paintings are there to be experienced … [they] are not to be reasoned with, they are not to be understood, they are to be recognised.” – (John Hoyland, 1979).
The colourful and large paintings are strong enough that they can stand out from the expanse of white walls and the “White Cube” school of gallery interior design; it will be interesting to see how the rooms work with other artists and smaller works in subsequent exhibitions; more subtlety may need to be achieved by the occasional use of appropriate colour.
As in Prague, the gallery will act as a catalyst for further regeneration of the area. The local Business Improvement District (BID) has already created a small pocket park inspired by Barbara Hepworth’s textiles and the Beaconsfield Art Gallery which has occupied the former “Ragged School” built in 1851 and a railway arch at the rear for twenty years will now have a potential new set of visitors to the area to support its vision and exhibitions, perhaps even the occasional joint collaboration with its new neighbour?
The current exhibition ‘Harnessing the Wind’ at the Beaconsfield Art Gallery uses the image of a wind turbine to explore aspects of the contemporary world which is trying to capture and harness energy from inconsistent winds of change. Swiss artist Sophie Bouvier Ausländer uses her barbed wire sculpture to represent the destructive force of wind, as people and countries are blown by one storm into another, Monika Oechsler brings together a series of new films focusing on changing symbolic architecture in Germany and Britain in contemporary life, and Naomi Siderfin’s drawings and paintings refers back to the wind farm in Essex that was the catalyst for the exhibition, all trying to explore the ever-changing nature of our society.
The Newport Street Gallery has a shop and a restaurant is proposed; with the number of visitors it will attract to the area, added to the scale of redevelopment along the river front, then more such facilities may follow. Hopefully the local Business Improvement District will look at successful examples of art and lighting in railway arches to improve the pedestrian environment in walking between the two areas.