Do I Have To Draw You A Picture? - Heong Gallery Exhibition Review
In three years at Cambridge I cannot believe this was my first visit to this hidden gem of a gallery, tucked away just through the gates of Downing College. I’ve walked past almost every day, with the exhibition signs for the likes of Ai Weiwei and Quentin Blake reminding me that I really must pay a visit, but always being too busy to set aside the time. This exhibition really caught my eye — normally the gallery hosts a solo exhibition of one artist’s work, but for their first themed exhibition it is safe to say it was the long list of household names which lured me in. Works by Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, Grayson Perry and Roy Lichtenstein to name but a few feature in ‘Do I Have To Draw You A Picture?’, with artwork owned by the college but also borrowed from the British Museum. How such a small and unknown gallery can host world famous artists month upon month is astounding, but it certainly shows the influence of Cambridge University.
If you put my inital gushing about the number of household names per square foot aside, I genuinely thought this was a thoughtful and well-curated exhibition, especially for such a small space. It risked being an overly showy demonstration of wealth and influence in the art world, but I think that what the curator wanted to explore came across well, and there was plenty of space left for the viewer to explore the artworks without the masses of leaflets and literature that conceptual exhibitions so often produce. The title, taken from Mel Bochner’s 2013 work (below) is perhaps a sarcastic comment on the view that text is not art. A friend told me how this year’s history paper included an essay question simply of ‘Text is not image: Discuss’ and I joked that this would be an art historian’s dream, perhaps the subject of a great exhibiton, because in my mind, the two cannot be separated. The exhibiton, commenting on the relationship between text and image, how we perceive the two and how they are transmitted and consumed in modern media as part of communication and propaganda (for example, Wolfgang Tillman’s pro-EU posters - 2015) used pieces on a variety of themes to cultivate thought in the viewers mind on the text/image relationship, breakdown and isolation.
The relationship between image and text is more subtle than you initially think, and several pieces resonated particularly strongly with me on this. Bob and Roberta Smith’s ‘Letter to Michael Gove’, 2011 is a heartfelt and self referential plea to the education secretary to save our art schools, with its carefully considered lettering turning the letter itself into something of the visual, leaving the reader to consider the intrinsic link between font and meaning, and how we read a text not solely through its words — a letter written in Comic Sans would be taken less seriously than one in Times New Roman, to give the most basic of examples. Everything we see has been designed, even the written word.
Secondly, the inclusion of a Lichtenstein piece, which interestingly had no writing in it, tells us a lot about how we associate certain art styles with text. As a pop artist, particularly creating comic strip style pieces, it is unusual to see a Lichtenstein without words - his tiny paper hat, which was designed to look like a sinking ship, was a small but thought provoking addition to the exhibition.
Other favourites of mine included the as always witty takes of Jenny Holzer - discussing death, life and mortality presented in a scrolling neon sign, and also short stories of unfortunate relationships by Louise Bourgeois, accompanied by letterpress prints, one of which features her iconic spider ‘Maman’. The inclusion of Jasper Johns also took me back to my photography student days where we studied his work in depth for one of our projects. There’s really a lot to see here for such a small space.
Whether you want to cram some big art names into your day, you want to see an exhibition for free and don’t have a lot of time to spare or you want to see some artworks that give you something to think about, this exhibition has something for everyone. Small but perfectly formed.
The exhibition runs at the Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge, until 7th October. Free Admission.