Liverpool Biennial, UK – review

Fists clench, feet march, faces frown. But colours scream and banners unfurl as a boat steams away across the Mersey, the overhead railway winds round the dying docks, and Tate & Lyle’s building symbolically crumbles.

All eyes at the launch of Liverpool’s 2014 Biennial gazed up to this passionately committed mural, half-peeling from the dome of the rotunda in the newly reopened 19th-century Old Blind School.

What is it? Who did it? Is its fragmented condition deliberate? The gallery attendant looked embarrassed. “Not sure what it is, really. It was already here. It’s not in the guidebook. It’s not part of the programme.” But the game is up. Allow a piece of authentic art to sneak into a biennial so conceptually overloaded that it offers zero visual stimulation, and visitors throng to the single image that is bright, human-scaled, historically vivid.

Crane your neck and names and dates become visible: Mick Jones, 1986, the People’s March for Jobs. Jones, son of trade union leader Jack Jones and a staunch socialist artist, died in 2012. He fought with the Czechs when Russian tanks crushed the Prague Spring, was a friend of Václav Havel, and travelled to Mexico in the 1980s to study muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Their flair for large-scale dynamic composition and expressive figuration informs this stunning tondo, elegantly structured to incorporate the curves of the dome. Unseen for decades, the mural alone is worth a visit to Liverpool.

It chimes, too, with a small off-biennial exhibition at John Moores University devoted to poet/painter/activist Adrian Henri; his “Entry of Christ into Liverpool”, with local heroes waving “Ban the Bomb” and “Long Live Socialism” placards, remains a 1960s icon, and Henri’s vision is fleshed out here with posters, manuscripts, broadcasts, eclectic collages.

In a homogenised art-fair-a-minute world, biennials rise or fall on their ability to engage with and transform the locally specific into something engrossing to global audiences. Liverpool’s chief victory this year has been to open access to the Old Blind School; the chief disaster is what it has put there. The School is a magnificent yellowing Bath stone neoclassical building whose changing roles tell British social history in microcosm: it thrived as a Victorian educational charity, was reinvented as the Merseyside Trades Union headquarters in the 20th century, lay derelict in the Nineties and Noughties, and is about to be converted into a restaurant and chocolaterie. Although floors are cracked, glass is broken and strip lighting obscures dado rails and cornices, the ghost of fabulous grandeur persists in the fabric of green and pink painted wrought iron stairwells, panelled interiors, large curving windows. The building’s brief life as a gallery during the biennial could have been glorious.

It isn’t. The biennial’s main show here, A Needle Walks into a Haystack, is over-curated fluff. The theme is that “somehow we all get up, get dressed, and get through the day . . . filled with activities like working or waiting, surrounded by objects like lamps, hats, tools, or doors.” Here are such objects: Norma Jeane’s ice-maker leaking on to a wet floor (“All Artists Are Liars”); Aaron Flint Jamison’s installation of heat sinks, data cables, ducting and air conditioners (“2 x Scrypt Huffer”); Peter Wächtler’s untitled video of picnicking cartoon characters on crutches (“the unruliness of the Great Outdoors had come to infect the safety of the Great Indoors” reads the explanation.)

These, and many similar, have been commissioned by the Biennial, and publicly funded by the Arts Council, Liverpool City Council and the European Union. At a fraction of the cost, Jones’s mural could have been restored, with lasting benefit to Liverpool. Instead, money and energy are frittered on floral lampshades wired to iPods (Josef Strau’s “Flowers Speaking”), puerile watercolours of lemons fighting apples and copulating wine glasses (Amelie von Wulffen’s series “This is how it happened”) and sofas shaped like feet and tables like heads (Nicola L’s “Atmosphere in White”).

Still life does not need to be so deadening, as is proved by the Walker Art Gallery’s John Moores Painting Prize. Judged from open submissions and thus resistant to curatorial heavy-handedness, this year’s show is full of intriguing variations on the genre. For manipulation of fat, oozing oil paint, James Byrne’s radiant table top composition “Book” is the star; there is humour in Rose Wylie’s improvisatory style and floating imagery in “PV Windows and Floorboards” and in Neal Rock’s pink and white silicone paint and Styrofoam “Inked Prosopon”, crossing baroque ornamentation with ice cream kitsch; pathos in Hynek Martinec’s monochrome of a dead deer on a table, “Every Minute You Are Closer to Death”, resembling a film still; and political edge in Rachel Levitas’s “Fox with Dahlias” posing the animal as an opportunistic force to disrupt establishment values.

Over at Albert Dock, the needle remains lost in the biennial haystack of Tate Liverpool, where still life morphs into interiors, with bloodless conceptual drawing and installations from forgettable, familiar Tate darlings – Lucy McKenzie, Helena Almeida, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Saloua Raouda Choucair – arranged under the patronising proposition that we “imagine that the institutional galleries of the museum are themselves a home . . . through this curatorial approach, the conventions associated with a canonical narrative are replaced with a more personalised story coloured by our own memories”.

Tate is saved by two nonagenarians. French architect Claude Parent’s “La Colline d’Art”, a series of yellow/grey ramps, slopes and platforms imitating the sharp lines of geometric abstraction, invites a disorientation similar to that suggested in surrealist paintings. Parent has placed examples of these – Paul Delvaux’s “Sleeping Venus”, where classical architecture is destabilised by an erotic dream world; Paul Nash’s bizarrely patterned “Voyages of the Moon”, inspired by globe ceiling lamps reflected in mirrored walls – in his flamboyant mise-en-scène. Abstract works meanwhile reference the vibrant stripes of 91-year-old Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez’s “Dazzle Ship”, anchored by Albert Dock and commissioned for the first world war’s centenary.

Cruz-Diez’s interventions to a veteran Mersey pilot ship echo the “dazzle” designs used to camouflage war vessels, but also accord with Tate’s excellent Mondrian and his Studios, Liverpool’s major historical summer exhibition. (Ignore the Biennial’s fraudulently slim “Whistler”, where, of six oil paintings displayed, one is an imitation and four are 2014 reproductions.)

With “Dazzle Ship” on view from its windows, Mondrian acquires fresh resonance. The great 1920s “Tableau” series, for example, with crystalline blue or red bursting from black-framed corners as if colour pushes beyond the canvas, is wonderfully answered by Cruz-Diez’s bright hues gleaming on the water. Thus abstraction flies out of the studio and the museum, into the city and the world: a rare, liberating moment in a biennial mostly suffocated by curatorial insularity.

Liverpool Biennial, to October 26,

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