Preview: Reality – Modern and Contemporary British Painting

Major twentieth century artists, each showing the stuff of real life, form a new exhibition in Liverpool. Richard Smirke talks to the curator who turned a pipe dream into Reality

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By his own admission, Chris Stevens did not have a particularly academic or complex approach to curating Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting. A new exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, it brings together over 50 works from some of the most famous homegrown artists of the past 60 years.

“I started off by creating a wish list of painters that I have liked over the years and I didn’t hold back,” explains the Basingstoke-born artist from his studio in the south of France. “It was a pipe dream really, because I thought there is no way they are going to let me actually have all these paintings, but they did and people really went for the idea.”

Two of Stevens’ paintings are included in the exhibition, sharing wall space with key works by Francis Bacon, Paula Rego, LS Lowry, Walter Sickert, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, George Shaw and Ray Richardson, among other exponents of the figurative, naturalistic style of painting that favours realism over abstract or conceptual imagery.

“Painting is not about decoration. It’s about trying to get something across and make people think,” says Stevens, whose near 40 year-long career began as a community artist on a housing estate in Bracknell and has focused on the margins of society ever since.

“All the artists in this show deal with the basic stuff of life rather than the pretty, pretty things,” he continues. “They are all British and they all paint about the British environment. They are not painting about the high and mighty. They are painting about council estates and real people. George Shaw is a fantastic example of somebody who has made work over the past 15 years exclusively about the housing estate that he grew up on in Coventry. If you look at the work, it couldn’t be anywhere else in the world. It’s about ordinary everyday life.”

When Stevens was studying fine art in Reading in the late 1970s he recalls being told in no uncertain terms that “painting was dead. There was simply no point in doing it”. Similar pronouncements have been made at regular intervals over the past three decades as video, minimal, conceptual, installation and photography art have come to the fore. Nevertheless, painting has remained a resilient and popular medium, both for artists and the wider public, who flocked to see recent national retrospectives by British luminaries Hockney and Freud, and have long maintained a fascination with Salford’s Lowry.
For Stevens, the form’s strength lies in its personal and direct connection with the creator, and although he admires and works in other mediums, he says that none give him “the buzz” that painting does.

“The trace of the artist is always there and, for me, that marriage between the concept and the craft is essential,” he says. “It’s about that wonderful, primeval thing where it’s you and a piece of charcoal making a mark and that’s what painting is essentially – making marks and making statements.
“When I make a painting I’m not trying to give an answer. I’m trying to pose questions and I hope people will look at this exhibition and ask themselves what those questions are and then try and come up with answers.”  

Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting is on show now until 29 November at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

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