Review of A Tall Order! Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s

…It would be a disservice to ‘A Tall Order!’ were it to be reductively caricatured as another homage to the 1980s. An important strand of the exhibition is its examination of the growth and the building of Rochdale as a strong northern town with a distinct architectural character, as evidenced in the inclusion of Charles Donald Taylor’s painting The Construction of College Bank Flats, Rochdale, Lancashire, 1966, and a set of six gritty monochrome photographs by John Davies of views of Rochdale taken in the 1980s when the town’s identity as an industrial heartland was being put under severe pressure. A corresponding set of photographs taken by Malcolm Glover, again in the monochrome printing that continued to be both popular and affordable in the 1980s, document the emergence of Rochdale as a settled place of residence to generations of people of South Asian background: at home, at work and at places such as the barbershop. Surprisingly perhaps, there is a far greater arc of art history in ‘A Tall Order!’, including, for example, works such as Victorian painter Frederick Goodall’s Shepherdess and Her Flock at a Pool Left by the Subsiding of the Overflow of the Nile, 1888. Historical paintings such as these were evidence of the scope and singularity of Morgan’s vision. The label accompanying Goodall’s painting made mention of it being included in a 1990 exhibition, ‘The Sands of Time’, ‘which sought to question western European perceptions of colonised countries’.

Thus, the inclusion of other ‘historical’ paintings, such as Lancelot Myles Glasson’s The Young Rower, 1932, and Gerald Festus Kelly’s Saw Ohn Nyun IV, 1932–44, gives ‘A Tall Order!’ particular depth, breadth and gravity. These two particular works were included in Morgan’s 1982 undertaking ‘Object Art/Object d’Art’, a display of works from Rochdale’s permanent collection, which ‘sought to re-examine some of the most popular works owned by the gallery, and question their meaning for contemporary audiences’. While visitors to ‘A Tall Order!’ might not be surprised to learn that by 1982 ‘the voyeurism [of The Young Rower] was regarded as “obscene to young feminists’, this particular visitor was finally able to identify Kelly’s artwork as the painting-in-the-painting of Lesley Sanderson’s 1988 work Time for a Change, in which this Sheffield-based artist undertook to challenge gendered and racialised objectification uncompromisingly in one of her memorable portraits/self-portraits. Time for a Change and other works, including Sutapa Biswas’s Que Sera Sera, 1985–86, and The Only Good Indian, 1985–86 (Interview AM447), were featured in important exhibitions at Rochdale Art Gallery such as ‘The Issue of Painting’ in 1986, which not only sought to give supportive space to the practices of women artists but also to recognise that these artists had as much right to call themselves painters as any white male artist, to whom the term overwhelmingly tended to be associated.

Inevitably, for those of a certain age, it is difficult to resist a not unproblematic sense of nostalgia for the gripping, innovative and sometimes technologically savvy art practices of a decade that had more than its fair share of bad news stories, the worst of them being the multiple election victories of the Tory Party. One of the galleries, Gallery Two, ‘Land and Our Environment’, includes a tape slide presentation by Anne Tallentire. The rhythmic sound of the slides changing in the carousel permeated the gallery, reminding those of us, again of a certain age, of the ubiquity of the programmed slide carousel that was such a perennial presence in no end of exhibitions from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s.

…It would certainly be somewhat blinkered to imagine that ‘A Tall Order! Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s’ could only be viewed through the prism of the achievements of Morgan et al. Though Rochdale Art Gallery emerges as a pioneering venue, this exhibition can, most importantly, be read as inviting us to recall other activist curators and arts administrators working in other northern galleries during the 1980s.

The above extracts are from a review by Eddie Chambers, in Art Monthly, March 2023: 24-25