North: Identity, Photography, Fashion marks Open Eye’s 40th anniversary, and it has become one of the gallery’s most popular and well-attended exhibitions of its recent history; it has captured the imagination of the public and media alike, drawing in the crowds and gaining publicity both locally and nationally.
Co-curated by Lou Stoppard and Adam Murray, the premise of the exhibition is to reflect the wide-reaching influences of the North as a self-identifiable entity with meaningful contributions in all creative cultural fields, from music to fashion to art. Despite the presence of art heavyweights (the exhibition features the likes of Peter Saville), Stoppard states that she aims for the exhibition to mean something to people; the true focus of the exhibition being the people on the street, inviting audiences to respond to the sights and sounds presented, that are at once familiar but also removed once they are presented in the form of high art and culture.
North: Identity, Photography, Fashion. Open Eye Gallery, 2017. Image by Mark McNulty.
Despite the anticipation and praise of the national press, on a more local level the exhibition has been met with mixed reviews. The curator’s intentions were to directly combat the now semi-ubiquitous ‘fashion blockbuster’ that has gained traction in the art world of late. These London-centric showcases tend to highlight the work of a single designer and the work is shown in direct relation to the life of one individual but this becomes counterproductive: the work is out of context, removed from the wider culture within which it was fomented.
North, in its intentions, is diametrically opposed to this: it takes fashion and photography from across the globe and gives it context, highlighting the motifs that have their roots in the North but can take on a wider significance. It deconstructs these images to show the northern origins, centring on the idea of a single communal identity which grows into a widely-disseminated trope that can become meaningful and relevant to those who have never laid eyes on the area.
Photograph by Alice Hawkins, Derrin Crawford & Demi-Leigh Cruickshank in ‘The Liver Birds’ LOVE magazine, Liverpool, 2012
However, the exhibition’s examination and portrayal of northern culture has been deemed shallow by some, accusing it of portraying stylised, even fetishised versions of the working class by those who are removed from the culture itself, rather than depicting an accurate reflection of complexities and depth of northern culture. Instead it is reminiscent of the blockbuster shows it reviles; it paints the North as a series of homogenised tropes co-opted and exploited by the fashion industry.
This analysis is perhaps a little harsh, the curators treat the subject with a level of sensitivity and care, and the inclusion of celebrity names serves to reaffirm the importance of northern culture and the extent to which its culture has been disseminated. The central tenets of northern culture can be seen in both local and global artists from Mark Leckey to Jeremy Deller; North reinforces the root of the central motifs, marrying the symbol with its origin.
Main photo: Stephen McCoy, from the series Skelmersdale, 1984