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Anita Sethi on the Lowry's Art of White exhibition
The sky in Salford is slung with low white cloud and threatens snow to rival that in Moscow at any moment. It is so cold that each breath turns the air white and the ground outside Manchester's Lowry Centre is covered over with hard frost. Inside, a history of LS Lowry's obsession with whiteness - not technically a colour but containing all colours - is unfolding, together with over 80 works from artists who have siphoned off powerful creative material from white's deceptive emptiness over the past 500 years.
LS Lowry himself changed artistic direction after a teacher reprimanded him for the gloominess of his work and he began to use pure white backgrounds that threw people - and their loneliness - into high relief, accentuating their failure to truly connect despite their physical proximity in the city's bustle. The white paint creeps into the smoggy Salford skies, eventually becoming the subject matter itself in later paintings such as the immensely haunting Waiting for the Tide (1967). Lowry was bewitched by the way white paint had a life of its own far past his own control, discovering that it darkens and discolours over time: "The pictures I've painted today will not be seen at their best until I'm dead", he reassured himself in 1966. Using white was a journey into the unknown, as modern artists and curators have also found.
"Looking at paintings from the past helps inform the way we look at work today", explains co-curator Clive Adams of the simple but compelling premise which had him structure the exhibition around three creative themes: representative, symbolic and conceptual. The representative section includes a wall of winter landscapes, as well as paintings depicting the way light falls on objects, the shadows it casts on still life, animal fur and clothing, including a stunning portrait of a nun by one of the few successful Renaissance women artists, Sofonisba Anguissola, The Artist's Sister in the Garb of a Nun (after 1551).
The juxtaposition of past and present is most powerful in the symbolism section, igniting the startling contradictions inherent within the colour. Peace, strength, moral goodness - such are its traditional associations as embodied in the lily and the dove in The Annunciation by a follower of Perugino (c1510). Many of the early paintings present a vision of the world polarised by good and evil. Yet within metres of these, creating a subversive clash of meanings, are works such as Maud Sulter's Terpischore (1989), a portrait of a black woman in a white wig and dress. "One of the most harmful associations, that of whiteness with purity, unfortunately still persists and has been rafted on to a difference in skin colour", comments Clive Adams. The exhibition's engagement with such issues is what challenges Adams most.
This dialogue with the past occurs within paintings themselves as in Nicky Coutts's reworking of Bruegel's famous winter landscape The Hunters in the Snow (1565). Her haunting work, Seem- In the Snow removes the hunters and their dogs leaving only their mysterious footprints in the snow. "There's a darker bent to white", Coutts explains, recalling the snow in the film Fargo, with the psychopathic killer and the sinister image of a mask, of something being covered up. "There's a very pristine, artificial cleanliness about white because it's an impossible and improbable being ... but there's confusion always embedded, as it's also somehow quite corrupt, quite sullied." The terrifying notion of emaciation, of being reduced to nothing, infiltrates the piece, with not only the disappearance of the hunters, but also the birds in the pond. Looking into the emptiness creates an eerie, heightened awareness of your own flesh-and-blood self.
The nothingness becomes everything in the final part of the exhibition where white is unleashed as the subject matter in works by Robert Ryman, Auerbach and Natasha Kidd's specially commissioned installation, Flow and Return. "I love paint straight from a can, the smell, sound, what it can do, things beyond your control", Kidd tells me. Since the Painting Machines she made for her MA show, she has used nothing but white paint and "struggles with the relevance of the artist's mark". Her love-affair with paint is displayed in the 150 litres of specially made white emulsion circulated through a network of copper pipes, dripping down a set of steel plates, leaving "stalactite" paint formations. It has been an unpredictable journey: the paint picks up the patina from the surface of the pipes and turns a bluish colour. White is indeed cause for obsession: "I stayed in the Lowry wrapped in a blanket overnight. We'd been plumbing for days and days and I just couldn't bring myself to leave it," Kidd tells me.
As you enter the foyer you are also confronted by more than 200 paper boats floating through the space, suspended there by London-based art collective, Fevered Sleep, who also spent a week overnight in the Lowry finishing off the exhibition's second commissioned piece. What more appropriate symbol than the ship, which once transported white goods - salt, flour, cotton - on the Manchester ship canal. The idea of the tabula rasa, implicit in the image of a white piece of paper waiting to have something written upon it, ties in with the history of the company itself for whom this is a debut visual arts exhibition.
"Trying to fill space whether with objects or bodies", is part of the aim of Fevered Sleep (predominantly a theatre and performance company), says David Harradine, who established the company in 1996 with Samantha Butler. The foyer's "huge empty space full of nothing" proved irresistible. Yet although they mapped out a design, they could not predict what it was going to look like: "It was a really terrifying, exhilarating experience", says Harradine. The unknown has exerted a "powerful presence" in the construction of the installation: a compelling soundscape element is built into the piece as infrared transmitters interfere with each other underneath the boats creating an unpredicted white noise effect.
The voyage into the unknown so implicit in the colour white is also part of the process of curating any exhibition, says Clive Adams: "It was quite a risky show ... you take a certain trail and you don't know where it's going to lead". Follow the path through the 500 years collected here and you will begin to discover white in the most unexpected of places; in the specially made white hot chocolate and marshmallows in the gallery cafe no less. This is an exhibition heightening our awareness of the taste, touch, sight, sound and smell of that most elusive of non-colours.
· The Art of White is on at the Lowry, Salford Quays until April 17 2006.
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