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Things as they ought to be
Great Arthur from Fann Street (81x79cm)

Disquieting utopias

Social housing has had a bad press for decades. It stands in as a symbol of all that is wrong about working class life.

Architect Stuart Barlow is excited by a collaboration between London residents and a Midlands painter to contrast the dreams and realities of life on a council estate

Six paintings by Birmingham-born Anthony McCorry are a strong example of how art and people can come together to create something meaningful. As Exhibit gallery director Alan Lam notes, McCorry proposes that the view that council estates are often portrayed as places to be feared or the very source of social ills should be reassessed.

Things as they ought to be refers to the contrast between the dream of a better life and the real experiences of ordinary people in social housing estates.

McCorry is inspired by his observations of built environments and the memories of places he has lived in or has visited. Things as they ought to be focuses on the iconic 1951 competition winning design for the Golden Lane Estate, by the young architectural firm Chamberlin Powell & Bon, who were influenced by the work of French architect Le Corbusier.

McCorry’s images of Golden Lane are nearly all bright and bold.  Stripped back to their architectural essentials, devoid of people and plants, they celebrate the artist’s self-confessed respect for the area and its people. McCorry, who grew up in the Chelmsley Wood neighbourhood in Solihull on a similar but unsuccessful estate, seeks to highlight his belief that the causes of peoples’ conditions, for good or ill, are the result of the environment in which they live.

Golden Lane
Tony McCorry and residents at the opening night

A constant dialogue between painter and residents is at the heart of these strangely unsettling works which are indeed  “a meditation on the alienation that compels us to create synthetic equivalents to a reality we have ceased to believe in’.  Golden Lane residents gave the artist a warm welcome and have collaborated and commented on his work in progress. They have not been slow to criticise when they think McCorry has used his artist licence in a composition.

Great Arthur from Fann Street, for example, arose when one resident showed McCorry his favourite view of where he lives, and its ‘slightly wonky appearance’. Stanley Cohen Balcony reflects a resident's delight with her balcony which she especially loves in the summer.

Still another resident told McCorry, when he was painting Back of Basterfield, that his house had always reminded him of West Ham United! Cleverly one image represents a darker mode of one resident. The sky in YMCA from top of Great Arthur is a tremendous textured dark blue, built up by layers and layers of paint, while the YMCA is represented by a foreboding grey. The gloomier tones reflect the resident’s discontent that the YMCA blocks his view of the millennium wheel.

Though small, this exhibition shows that art can relate to, and interact with, people and people can readily relate to it. This is the direct result of the artist being brave enough, even humble enough, to talk and interact with ordinary people, rather than courting  the favour of London’s art establishment. McCorry thoroughly deserves recognition for what he has achieved with his work at Golden Lane and should be given support for his ambition to paint all of the estates across the whole of London to record the good and the bad as a record of our current society.

If you want a dose of optimism about what art can do, get yourself along to Anthony McCorry’s Things as they ought to be at Exhibit at Golden Lane Estate. It is part of Super Estates Projects to celebrate 50 years of the Golden Lane Estate in the City of London.

Things as they ought to be – Anthony McCorry at Exhibit at Golden Lane Estate, 20 Goswell Road, London EC1M 7AA until 19 February.  Open Tuesday to Friday 11-18:00; Sat 11-17:00.

  • Tony McCorry’s website
  • Stuart Barlow’s review of Estates by Lynsey Hanley

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