Conrad Atkinson, "Mining Culture"

Left: Mining Culture, 1996
From the catalogue "Mining Culture in Technicolor"

Then there is the distinctive touch of his Northern wit. Says Campany, "What really sticks out in his art is the humour and sense of play. All his projects have this particular kind of British wit, this very fugitive thing which just springs out and grabs you."

Atkinson has engaged with many and varied subjects: from industrial sickness to the Irish troubles; from the state of the media to the plight of immigrants. He has produced prints, sculptures, paintings and installations, which have been seen in Europe, the United States and Russia. His work is shown in union halls and subway stations; it has been published in the newspaper and plastered on buses.

Sometimes Atkinson's objectives have made him notorious. His 1978 piece, A Children's Story: For H. M., was censored by the Arts Council before it ever opened. It was commissioned by the Slade School of Art, a body whose Royal Patron was Britain's beloved Queen Mother. Atkinson produced a piece questioning the Royal Warrant - or seal of approval - of Distillers Corporation. It served as a reminder to the public of how the company's negligence with distribution of Thalidomide caused widespread, terrible birth deformities.

It was not the last time Atkinson's work would cause uproar. On the contrary, he is frequently pilloried, hounded and taken to court. Yet he retains great enthusiasm and excitement. These same qualities illuminate his art, rescuing it from the slightest trace of the didactic. Ask about his most troublesome projects and he merely shrugs. "I guess I've had some pretty Kafka-esque moments. But then, someone must have told Goya, 'Lighten up!'"

These days, Conrad Atkinson lives in a number of worlds. Much of his time is still spent in northern England, where his wife Margaret Harrison is senior research professor at Manchester Metropolitan University. But, since 1978, Atkinson has also been a presence in the New York scene, where he exhibits with the Ronald Feldman Gallery. He is also a professor of art at the University of California at Davis, and continues to launch projects around the world.

Thematically, Atkinson has always focused on those questions which bridge cultures: immigration, borders, ethnic strife, questions of work and identity. Today, he is more than ever an Englishman at home in the world, although he remains aware that this holds contradictions. In 1995, after three years at Davis, he presented - in Carlisle, England - linked installations. He entitled the series Transient, and wrote in the catalogue Preface:

"I'm an immigrant who came with my family to the USA in the best possible circumstances - as professor at a premier university. I came because I love the United States and its institutions and culture. I admired its ability to react and adapt to change, and I'm disturbed when this ability appears to be endangered...The notions of migration, home, immigration and their symbolic cultural metaphors are complicated political and ideological issues. Through the fragmenting socialist imperialism of the USSR, the exploding mini-nationalisms of Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and the immigration debates in California runs a common menacing thread. Perhaps we see these events and issues in the rearview mirror of history, and principles are further away than they seem. "

All of the artifacts in "Transient" alluded to this viewpoint. But one set summed it up as only Atkinson would - a range of shoes set on the floor in a spiraling circle. From worn huaraches to heels, every pair was covered in glitter, transformed into the "ruby slippers" famous from Hollywood's The Wizard of Oz. These humble, human engines of migration spoke as poetically of hope as of hope deferred.

At the time of "Transience", Atkinson was asked if his work over 25 years had "common threads". He answered that he felt it had two consistent characteristics. One was "the notion of making an issue"; the other, an ongoing debate between "high art and low art." He added that his art, despite all its critiques, was quintessentially a positive endeavor. "I also wanted to say positive things...to celebrate things".

continues

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