John Myers: Middle England

     Ikon gallery can be found just off Broad Street in Oozells square, and it can also be accessed via the canals, so with this in mind it is a nice addition to a regular trip to the Bullring or Mailbox. It never takes longer than forty-five minutes to look around the gallery as it is very small, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in intrigue and sophistication. There is a cafe, shop and three gallery spaces all of which exhibit contemporary art, and quite often film installations. As a central base for the Birmingham arts and culture scene, it seemed appropriate that Midlands-based artist, John Myers, held a West Midland’s based exhibition.

First, the viewer is confronted with a small black and white photograph of the artist; he stands next to a motorbike and garage door looking purposefully into the camera lens. As the remaining photographs in the exhibition are studied, his intention for featuring himself unfolds; it is apparent that that this was not a decision influenced by a desire for artistic authority. His portrait, taken by artist Dennis Roberts, captures the very nature in which the photographs were taken: through a highly subjective and quiet invasion of personal and public space. What follows are a series of bleakly nostalgic photographs taken between 1972 and 1979 in and around the Stourbridge area in the West Midlands.

There are several attractions to what may appear, upon first glance, a plain, black and white photographic series of a person’s neighbourhood. Firstly, there is wonderful attention to everyday commodities, which today pose as fashionable, vintage details. The viewer is then confronted with an eclectic range of what is not typically perceived to be 1970s British memorabilia; a giraffe, a rabbit, a six-foot cactus, a ballerina, a canon poised at a block of flats, two men dressed as Santa Claus and three photographs of a furniture store on New Street resembling the interior of a tasteful ‘Austin Powers’ pad. Yet, due to the aesthetic simplicity in the composition of the shots, all taken at roughly eye-level, there exists a satisfying familiarity. It gives the audience the impression that they were, and still are, part of the environment in which giraffes and cactuses are fragments of their unconscious, everyday observations.

However, it is the people Myer chooses to photograph and his ability to indicate their personalities through a careful arrangement of their personal spaces which remains the highlight of the exhibition. Their stories are memorable and continue to develop for a few days after leaving; a particular favourite of mine was Nicola and Donny Osmond, taken in 1973. An expressionless young girl with thick rimmed glasses sits on her bed, with a worn out cuddly panda at her feet and the backdrop – a wall covered in grinning Donny Osmond posters. Although the characters’ expressions remain vacant in most of the photographs, there is room for laughter and you begin to question whether Myers’s own, serious gaze in his portrait is sincere after all.

This is the world that our parents grew up in, perhaps, but as a young adult, who in addition did not grow up in the West Midlands, I wonder what shape a similar, contemporary collection would take. What figures and desolate, urban areas would fill the small spaces in the neatly aligned frames? Would, for instance, the series of ten anonymous television sets be replaced with ten hooded teenagers of the August riots? The viewer may leave the gallery only noticing ugly corners of buildings on the walk home, but some may also consider the space on the other side of the wall, where there are people who are openly proud of their material possessions and at a glance, can tell their life-stories.

As always, Ikon delivers on quality and controversy despite its intimate gallery space. The Middle England exhibition is on display until February 5th and further upcoming exhibitions and events can be found on the Ikon gallery website.

Words by Alana Tomlin