Art | Nocturne at Leeds City Gallery – creatures of the night

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The Leeds City Art Gallery cites James Attlee’s ‘Nocturne’ (2011) as the inspiration behind the exhibition, from the section in which he states that ‘it is scarcely more than a century since the connection [to the ‘celestial clockwork’] was decisively broken, since we turned our back on the sky and our faces towards the brilliantly lit interiors…’

Thus the Gallery’s latest exhibition ‘Nocturne’ attempts to address the uncertainty and fear that has come to surround our perception of the night, likening Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw’s much loved 19th century ‘moonlights’ to Turner-prize nominee George Shaw’s atmospheric paintings of the housing-estate in Coventry where he grew up.

Whilst Atkinson Grimshaw’s brooding figures might initially appear threateningly Jekyl and Hyde-esque in his ‘Park Row, Leeds’, on further reflection his work stands as a representation of the people reassuringly as a part of the city. The street clearly acts as the focus in the painting, whilst the people pictured serve largely as a framing device, arguably furthering Grimshaw’s romanticism of the city at night. They blend seamlessly into the scene as if they had always been a part of it; they do not lurk sinisterly in dark corners but stand placidly either side of the street in which Grimshaw demonstrates a brilliant understanding of shadow and reflection. A sense of unity and timelessness to the city of Leeds is translated as a result.

Both artists, in fact, have succeeded in capturing the entrancing strangeness of the urban at night. George Shaw’s painting ‘The End of Time’ illustrates an empty grey concrete space, apparently useless in its emptiness; its previous use and purpose are now lost in translation. Yet this concrete wasteland, like the abandoned remains which one might liken to the theatricality of John Piper’s wartime painting, suggests the presence of silent witness. There is nothing to fear in the landscapes of human authorship, in Shaw’s case they present a space of silent contemplation.

In locating the urban as the primary subject, Shaw and Grimshaw have mastered the ‘Nocturne’. Their accomplished understanding of chiaroscuro, (seen in Grimshaw’s reflections and in Shaw’s use of Humbrol enamel paints), adds depth and creates presence.  Arranged on opposing sides in the upstairs gallery, by first glance it might appear that they have been presented together to show a contrast in the way in which both artists approach the city night. Yet the exhibition proves to exalt rather than to argue the pictorial devices of these two artists, who both confront the urban blackness of night with beauty and clarity.

Louise Newton

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