Is it Art?

'Chance, Order, Change' arrives at the Barber

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We walked into the Barber Institute, pointed at the work of art above and asked with childlike cluelessness "is there a painting due to be hung there?" There wasn't. Welcome to an exhibition that's going to split more opinion than an EU Referendum to a Coldplay soundtrack.

It's Courier by Robert Ryman, part of Chance, Order, Change, arguably the Barber's bravest exhibition to date. Focusing on some of the purest (and therefore most 'out there') forms of abstract art it features 12 pieces by eight artists that will amaze and perplex you in equal measure. Ryman's thing, for example, is the potential of paint itself and the material upon which it is applied. His paintings always use multiple thin layers of white pigment to reduce any optical distraction which colour might bring. He's not concerned with narrative, but instead makes paintings which change according to how light is reflected from or absorbed by their surfaces.

Why? Well abstract art was (and is) all about a move away from the real. When most artists obsessed with portraying the natural world in as lifelike a way as possible, abstract artists went completely the other way, focussing on optical effects of colour, geometric forms and essentially, messing with your mind. The most brain-bothering of all on display is Bridget Riley's brilliant Orphean Elegy (above) which, if you stare too long, will zone you out to a point where only smelling salts can bring you back.


Champion of the exhibition is Josef Albers, one of the most influential teachers and designers at the famed Bauhaus school, until its closure by the Nazis in 1933. He fled to the USA, where his influence on the development of modern art was huge. The dude then got seriously into painting blocks (see above) with his Homage to the Square series numbering over 1000 examples. The Barber have got their mitts on two of them.


The more you roll with the wackiness the more genius you see in the work. Our favourite is Chance, Order, Change by Kenneth Martin (above), the piece after which the entire exhibition is named. It was painted on the throws of a die. Whatever number the die would reveal, Martin would plot a line on squared paper. Rolled over and over again, this was the outcome.


There are sculptures too. Sort of. Alan Charlton's Ten Part Line Painting took the best part of a day to hang. Projecting exactly 4.5cm from the wall and exactly 4.5cm apart, these 9cm wide canvas blocks are a perfect example of an artist who, from the late 1960s, has made only serial monochrome grey paintings. As you do.

It's an at times brilliantly insane and at other times insanely brilliant exhibition that will have you debating its strengths and weaknesses long after you leave. You owe it to the Barber - who have stuck their necks out here, in the name of Brum - to go and see it. And it's free, so you're sort of out of excuses. More

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