In 1993, a group of 70 arts and heritage enthusiasts decided it was time to create an arts centre in Woking. Through their endeavours they achieved this goal raising more than £7 million and in September 2007 The Lightbox opened its doors (be careful on your way in as the automatic doors open outwards). Although the gallery does have a permanent body of staff, it still relies largely on the support of its 150 volunteers showing the strength of community in these parts. Education is obviously where this gallery comes into its own – as well as having great learning facilities, they run a young curators’ group, after-school arts clubs and more structured schools’ programmes that work within the national curriculum.
The Lightbox is located alongside numerous shopping centres, endless multi-storey car parks, lane after lane of traffic and more traffic lights than I’d care to count; its striking design sticks out like a sore thumb. This is obviously the most impressive building in town although I’m not sure there is much competition; designed by Marks Barfield Architects it is found, clad in wood with gold and silver aluminium panels, alongside the Basingstoke Canal. The canal-side garden is protected by a gabion wall, gesturing to Renaissance fortifications. Inside is the most wonderful expanse of wall, lit from an atrium that stretches the entire length of the south side.
Currently there’s a mobile of hands hanging in the space but there is a painfully ‘blank canvas’ of white wall. Considering the surroundings this architecture is challenging but it is successful and effective.
Most of the time, The Lightbox is filled with Chris Ingram’s spectacular collection of Modern British Art, helping to fulfil his desire to make this period more accessible to a wider public. The drawback of visiting during the Frink exhibition meant I saw very little of the collection I had hoped to view; it is usually on permanent rotating display in the Lobby galleries (aka the corridors). I made do with buying the books to give me a greater insight into the Ingram Collection which really is incredible, showing the works that Ingram likes and chooses to share with the nation. The generosity of his loan programme across the country and, indeed, his permanent loan here is fabulous.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Woking is the home of Kenwood food mixers and also where HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds. Part of the aim of the gallery is to house Woking’s Story which tells the social history of the town looking at the railway, the history of mental health through Brookwood Hospital, Brookwood Cemetery (once the largest cemetery in Europe) and Britain’s first purpose-built mosque. This display is aimed at a young audience and, although simplistic in format, it does well at highlighting the cultural importance of the area.
Currently, The Lightbox is mounting a retrospective of Dame Elisabeth Frink’s career. In the 1960s, while other artists turned increasingly to abstraction, Frink continued to pursue an interest in figurative and naturalistic imagery.
In the double-height gallery on the first floor we are introduced to Frink’s main artistic concerns: Frink had no interest in sculpting the female body saying it didn’t act as a suitable vehicle for her ideas. Her fascination with man (whether standing, walking, running or seated) extended across her career, expressing ideas of masculine courage, strength and heroism. Her men are complicated vessels of emotion, sensuality and vulnerability.
Her interest in animals – horses, dogs and birds – also comes to the forefront here. She admired the strong bonds between man and beast – the loyalty, intimacy and interdependence.
Throughout the exhibition, which is spread across the building, we also see her heads, religious iconography and her vast array of print work which strongly complemented her sculptural processes.
But, the gallery just hasn’t done very much with this amazing body of work – the pieces lose something by being plonked in the corridors and placed higgledy-piggledy across the space. We encounter the first Frink sculpture within seconds of walking through the front door before we’ve even seen a welcome panel.
The labels are sheets of sticky paper that are peeling off the walls. The lids of the Perspex cases aren’t actually screwed down (possibly not the best protection then) and are so smeared in places that it’s difficult to see the works beneath them. Ingram, the inventor of the modern media agency, has a fascinating background and obviously understands the importance of quality finish and appearance. Perhaps it would be worth him sharing a little of his expertise, as well as his art, with the gallery. Water wrote that ‘he loathes preciousness’ which I get and I have the utmost admiration for the aims of this space but The Lightbox comes off as distinctly amateur – it is not doing justice to the great works of art that it has the privilege to display.
Hepworth Wakefield, Pallant House and Turner Contemporary can all get it right so being out of London is not an excuse. If The Lightbox wants people to come to see their gallery a little more work needs to go into the presentation and the curation needs more thought. The exterior is wonderful and I hope that, in time, the interior will match it. There was a huge party of men in fluorescents walking around so maybe they are planning some work to The Lightbox.
All the enthusiasm and dedication that formed this gallery in the first place needs now to be used to take The Lightbox to the next level.