AFTER 17 years, York contemporary gallery According To McGee is to close its Tower Street doors on Saturday.
Acomb husband and wife and business duo Greg and Ails McGee are looking forward to launching their next art space, but first they will mark their exit from their yellow-fronted premises with a party. “You’ll come? Say you will!” rolls out the invitation on Facebook.
The couple met while teaching at Huntington School in York, where Ails (Miss Denholm at the time) taught art, Greg, English and drama.
In 2005, they opened their gallery in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower, initially operating as The ArtSpace before the McGees put their name to the enterprise. Now, coinciding with their own move to Acomb, they are shutting up shop, but not for long. One lease at is at an end, but a new lease of life for According To McGee will take root and beat fruit in suburbia.
“We’ve been busy gutting the gallery,” says Greg. “Chapter one comes to an end, but before we launch chapter two, we plan to have a party – and you’re invited.
“We’d love you to come and join us in saluting a wild 17 years’ holding court opposite Clifford’s Tower on Saturday from 4pm till 6pm.
“Paintings by Richard Barnes, his daughter, Chantal Barnes, and Freya Horsley await a final perusal in this location. All artists will be in attendance, as will all McGees.”
“Come over and say goodbye and peruse and perhaps purchase the paintings of Richard Barnes or Chantal Barnes.”
Greg and Ails are bowing out at Tower Street with Art Happening , the Barnes double bill of the former Bootham School head of art, cityscape artist Richard, and Chantal, a former pupil of Ails, who specialises in seascapes, landscapes and abstracts.
Barnes & Barnes: Contemporary Painting finds the McGees’ gallery coming full circle. “It was back in 2005 that we launched here on Tower Street with a solo show from Richard Barnes, so this is in a sense a victory lap before we launch chapter two,” says Greg.
More details of what comes next for the McGees will be announced soon. “We hope you’re as excited as we are,” they say. “By the time winter 2022 comes around, all will be revealed.”
“We were naïve when we started, but with naïveté comes a confidence,” reflects Ails. “Though we’re still just as confident 17 years later, we’re aware that this is the time for a reboot. We’d like to rediscover that sense of risk and experimentation that fuelled us so long.”
Greg concurs: “We started with Richard Barnes and we’ll finish here with Richard and his daughter Chantal’s art. That’s a pleasing narrative. The next chapter will include a dozen new artists we’ve never worked with before, but for now we say, to quote the neon art of Gary Winters & Claire Hind, ‘We Made Something Of This.’ That means a party on Saturday and a salute to everything that’s been.”
Greg and Ails McGee select ten moments where According To McGee “altered the cultural atmosphere” in York
It’s Good But Is It Art?, 2006
“IT was our second year as a gallery,” recalls Greg. “York Theatre Royal was getting ready to run Yasmina Reza’s play Art, in which one of a group of three friends purchases a blank white canvas to hang on his wall, leading to all kinds of existential debate.
“We were asked to contribute to their promo theatre booklet, but we thought we’d go further and run a series of exhibitions that asked of our visitors, ‘Is This Art?’.
“It gave us a good chance to distil our ambitions to an irreducible manifesto as well as work with a huge array of local artists. Ultimately though it proved to us as gallerists that we were a gallery in which contemporary painting was going to be our priority.
“It opened the door to Richard Barnes, who really helped us in the early days harness exactly what kind of space we wanted to be.
“The ‘Is It Art’ show was great. We launched it with a private view that hammered home what we were all about in the early days, which was much more about creating events and having packed parties than selling paintings.
“Guests included actors Stuart Organ, Andrew Dunn and Daniel Hill; we had Lord Mayors and Sheriffs; rock band Death Cigarettes performed. York was great back then with a really vibrant scene.”
Poetry! Kenny Goldsmith, Arnold Kemp, Rob Fitterman and Kim Rosenfeld, 2007 – 2010. Dreamcatcher: 2013-2022
“LOOKING back, it’s amazing how much international poetry we managed to fit into our early days,” says Ails. “Kenny Goldsmith, Rob Fitterman and Kim Rosenfeld were – and still are – some of the hottest textual artists in New York. Kenny was featured at President and Mrs Obama’s celebration of American poetry and was subsequently appointed the first Poet Laureate of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“Bostonian Kemp is an artist, poet, and curator and serves as the Dean of Graduate Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was named a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow in Fine Arts. They all brought a transatlantic and literary energy to our York gallery.”
Greg adds: “We continue to fly the flag for poetry via my role as arts advisor for international poetry-zine Dreamcatcher and running exhibitions up until the present day. Staying sensitive to the currents of modern writing has helped us hugely in continuing to curate cutting-edge exhibitions.”
Arnold Kemp at According to McGee: https://vimeo.com/66807378
Kenny Goldsmith at According to McGee: https://vimeo.com/accordingtomcgee
Interactive Prints: Transamerica, Nathan Walsh, 2013
IN 2013, transatlantic links between York and New York received creative consolidation via an exhibition at 5th Avenue in New York and According To McGee. “York’s own Nathan Walsh, an internationally established painter, exhibited his astonishingly photorealist cityscapes at New York’s Bernarducci Meisel gallery,” says Ails. “Four days before that, a ‘pre-exhibition warm-up gig’ kicked things off at According To McGee.
“It was an opportunity to test some very innovative and experimental approaches. ‘Transamerica’ is a beautiful, bejewelled cityscape of San Francisco. What was especially great was that it’s rigorously observed and painstakingly crafted.
“On another level, Walsh painted it in concert with Newcastle University’s Culture Lab, so that with a free app developed especially for it, viewers could download the app and see the path the painting took, from its sketches to its final completed mark.”
The opening event had 150 people downloading the app simultaneously. “They held their iPod or iPhone in front of the print, seeing the history of one of the most beautiful cityscapes from one of the greatest photo-realists in UK reveal itself,” says Greg.
“It simply changed completely the way you see art. Collectors now had art in their hallway that, by day, was a stylish poster and became, once they had Repentir downloaded, cutting edge, limited-edition digital art. How’s that for a dinner party conversation piece?”
Seebohm: Stories and Gaming, Nick Walters and Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2014
ACCORDING To McGee’s charitable arm New Visuality has worked with young people from across York.
“The Joseph Rowntree Foundation provided funding for us to work with young people from York who came from families who had experienced poverty,” says Greg. “For a lot of people, the very concepts of creativity and culture can lead to feelings of exclusion and frustration. 70 per cent of our participants had never visited York Minster.
“We sat with the young people and their families and carers and highlighted a strategic aim: how do we ensure accessible, diverse and inclusive cultural entitlement for young, disadvantaged people in the city via innovative creativity, and to seamlessly include participants who could pay fees? It was a tough call, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation funding galvanised us on every level.”
The artwork was a mixture of basic gaming, comic-book illustrations, digital art and collage. “We needed to unify it to exhibit it in any meaningful way, so we brought in light installation artist Nick Walters to take over our front window,” says Ails.
“Fresh from installations at York Minster and Glastonbury, he worked with us to get the best out of each participant. He came up with the main visual, to project phrases and text from Seebohm Rowntree’s influential 1901 book, Poverty: A Study Of Town Life.
“Through a semi-transparent patchwork row of terraced houses and characters and their activities created in the project, the words filtered through colours and images chosen independently by our participants; some of their work, some of them working.
“It ended up being part of citywide festival Illuminating York but also stood as an inner-lit testament to Joseph Rowntree Foundation for months.”
Garage Projects, Goldsmiths and Glasgow School of Art Graduates, 2015
THE McGees saw in their tenth anniversary with a group show from Goldsmiths and Glasgow School of Art graduates.
Garage Projects, comprising Rae Hicks, Paul Crook, Jack Park, Mary Wintour, Ian Parkin and Will Thompson, brought ‘Beginnings, Middles, Ends’ to York.
“It was a chance for us to look outwards and chase quality,” says Ails, “Rae Hicks won the John Moores Painting Prize and more recently the Waverton Art Prize, beating 700 submissions shortlisted by the international curator Paint Talk.
“The exhibition launched with a packed event. Both Goldsmiths and Glasgow Schools of Art are so important in influencing the future of visual art, it was exciting to play a part in that.”
New York, YOU York, Dollarsandart featuring Sir Ian Botham, 2015
“DUBAI celebrity artist Jim Wheat, of Dollarsandart, had already encouraged a groundswell of interest in Dubai and the USA. It was thrilling to welcome him to York for an inaugural solo show, and having it officially opened by Sir Ian Botham was an added bonus,” says Ails.
She remembers “Beefy” Botham’s time in the gallery fondly. “He was lovely,” she says. “We talked a lot about the Scottish Borders and my hometown, Kelso. He also collaborated on painting a canvas with Jim, which went on to auction,” she says.
Sir Ian enjoyed his day in York. “It was a great pleasure to open Jim’s show supporting New Visuality,” he said. “I was impressed with how he’d developed his work, and I recommended ‘New York, YOU York’ at According To McGee.”
Text, Technology, Disability & Art, The Print Project, 2016
ACCORDING To McGee employed its charitable arm, New Visuality, to multifaceted effect in an exhibition that brought Greg and Ails the Best Cultural Event award at the inaugural York Culture Awards that year.
“We won in a pitch held at a Digital Innovation Fund GeniUS event the most cutting-edge kit in its field: Ideum’s Platform 46,” says Ails. “We set about building an algorithm-based programme that allowed learners at Blueberry Academy, via magnetic words, to concoct their own slogans and tweets.
“Each message was unleashed as a visual hot-air balloon, where the learner saw their own message join the increasingly complicated Twittersphere surrounding York at that time.
“Many tweeters loved UNESCO’s designation of York as a City of Media Arts; many tweeters were baffled, and many trolls hated the whole thing on principle. The differences in opinion was fascinating, so we thought ‘let’s make art out of this’.”
According To McGee duly contacted The Print Project in Shipley, West Yorkshire. “The Print Project are the Rolls Royce of letterpress printing,” says Greg, “It was an exciting morning at York’s Blueberry Academy when The Print Project first arrived and set up. Letterpress printing is aesthetically glorious and is a great leveller too: anyone can have a go.”
The learners at Blueberry Academy chose, organised, and pressed their posters. “We spent a summer interfusing innovation and traditional printing techniques,” says Greg. “The learners curated a series of their posters to complement the beautiful Giclée posters designed by Choir of Vision, culled from tweets from members of the public reacting to York’s UNESCO status as #CityofMediaArts.
“Some loved it, some hated it. Either way, the posters were in gallant company with the letterpress posters.
“When it came to the job of imbuing all tweets and slogans with a Jedi-esque digital power, we worked once more with light installation artist Nick Walters. According To McGee became for three weeks a refulgent, futuristic spaceship, all the while building its glorious swagger on slogans written by York’s most vulnerable citizens.”
Ails adds: “Nick was amazing. He was fascinated by the tweets created by the learners, as well as by the nature of Twitter itself. He built his installation around a bird cage, complete with origami birds, so that when the tweets were projected though it, the messages would refract through the birds and glitter ball, radiating around the gallery and through the front window, beneath the black shadow of Clifford’s Tower.
“It was great to receive the award from Mark Addy at the Culture Awards too.”
The Beano Is 80!, Horace Panter, 2018
SKA legend Horace Panter provided the Pop Art and star quality as the gallery caused an international splash by kickstarting the 80th birthday celebrations of The Beano comic.
“It was a very light-hearted exhibition, but there was no mistaking the characters’ punk credentials. Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx were disruptors before Johnny Rotten was born!” says Greg.
“To have Horace Panter, who was so instrumental in kickstarting ska-punk with The Specials, mediate the characters through his own Pop Art filter was hugely exciting, relevant, and irreverent.
“We had Dennis and Gnasher diving into Hockney’s LA swimming pool; Minnie the Minx as a Warholian starlet and Lord Snooty in a Lichenstein frame, complete with Ben Day dots.
“The Bash Street Kids invaded the high art world of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. Collectors from all over the UK attended the opening and we sold massive originals and more limited editions than Gnasher has had sausages.”
Hello There! Banksy, Grayson Perry, Vic Reeves, and Dscreet, 2019
“IT was just before the pandemic, when a collector friend of ours donated world-class art, including pieces by heavyweights Banksy, Vic Reeves (aka Jim Moir), Grayson Perry and urban artist Dscreet,” says Greg. “We thought we’d launch it as we would any other exhibition, but this art was just so instantly collectible, it sold straight away via phone calls.”
Ails adds: “It was a weekend event that was over too soon. It was a shot in the arm in that it brought us to a wider audience and reminded us that investing in globally collectible art is a serious business.”
Painting: Figures Underground And Imagined, Dave Pearson and ex-miner Harry Malkin 2019; The Return Of The Painter, 2016-2022
“DIGITAL art and poetry are great, but ultimately our raison d’être is contemporary painting,” says Ails. “In the case of Dave Pearson, who died in 2008 of cancer, his art is especially poignant. The Guardian has him as ‘a great British painter’, BBC Radio 4 as ‘the greatest painter we never knew’. Internationally respected art critic Edward Lucie-Smith hails him as a ‘really major artist’.
“Credit must go to the Dave Pearson Trust, who initially rescued his studio in Haslingden and continue with it as their full-time job to organise his art, with experts applauding their hard work and declaring that the collection is worth more than £1 million.”
According To McGee’s collaboration with the trust will continue to grow. “We’ve worked with them for years, and in 2019 we threw a new synergy into the mix.
“Ex-miner and full-time artist Harry Malkin creates contemporary painting that can hold its own alongside Dave’s, providing counterpoints and consolidations all the while.
“Harry Malkin’s first-hand depictions of mining are the finest in the UK, endowing torchlit moments of toil with a muscular theatricality. Cheeks and eye sockets are ink black, shoulders are slick crescents, and amid the trembling chiaroscuro, the figures quicken and bristle in their brutal work.
“Their poise and movement are perfectly calibrated with the instinct and knowledge hewn from many decades’ worth of witnessing and working more than one mile deep underground.”
Ails concludes: “Painting has never been more needed, and with the likes of Amrik Varkalis, David Baumforth, Freya Horsley, Chantal Barnes Julia Poulton at the forefront, the medium is showing no signs of letting up soon.”