Northam’s work is mainly figurative as she is inspired by natural forms and the human body. Her sculptures in this solo show really highlight her ability to be diverse. The light bounces off the smooth surfaces of some of her portrait busts and nude figures, while the emphasis on others is their lively texture (for example Ivy, one of my favourites from her exhibition). Not everything is realistic or instantly recognisable, however. Her abstract forms like ‘Angel’ and ‘Standing form with hole’ favour curved silhouettes and play with interesting shapes. Northam doesn’t only work in different styles, but also produces on a range of different scales. Some are hand-sized, like her replica ‘Diana the Huntress’ for the Earl of Harrowby. If you take a step through the open doors, you’ll see an impressive white sculpture of a male nude torso, its surface a pattern of hatched lines, stretching up towards the sky. It happened to be a typical “summer’s” day in Birmingham in terms of the weather when I visited, but the rainfall probably added to its impact, rather than taking away. It was quite beautiful seeing nature interact with the torso sculpture, especially considering nature and the body are what Northam celebrates within her work. Come rain or shine though, the outdoor sculpture is a delight to see.
Like Northam, Jain McKay is also interested in the human form as well as human behaviour, and her exhibition consists solely of mixed-media portraits. As the exhibition title suggests, in each portrait McKay channels a different ‘Old Master’. For example, one painting is a reworking of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. But it isn’t the painting exactly as you know it. Instead of a black background, it is alive with generous strokes of colour and raised circular shapes made from what seems to be wax. The girl’s piercing eyes stare out at you amidst the expressive swirls of highlight on her face, while the headscarf dissolves into the pink and blue surrounding her head. Although each done in slightly different styles, as with most of her pieces in this show, you get a wonderful sense of movement and texture thanks to McKay’s paint application and handling of materials. This is where McKay puts her own stamp on the Old Masters’ techniques, mixing contemporary approaches with the old method of painting to breathe new life into the form.
You have until 8th June to check out Hannah Northam and Jain McKay’s solo exhibitions, but several pieces of their work are also on display in the galleries upstairs as part of the Prize exhibition. Filled with tens of amazing submissions, this annual open exhibition is also one not to be missed!