AFTER 17 years, York contemporary gallery According To McGee is to close its Tower Street doors in September.
Acomb husband and wife and business duo Greg and Ails McGee are looking forward to the next stage but in the meantime they are “ready to go out with an incendiary confetti of contemporary collectibles”, as Greg puts it.
“Every chapter comes to an end,” says Ails, “And before we launch Part Two, we thought let’s finish our tenure at Tower Street by going full circle. We started back in 2005 with a Richard Barnes show, and I had just finished teaching his daughter Chantal Barnes as an A-Level student at Huntington School.
“Chantal is now an internationally sought-after artist and has work appearing in Vogue magazine, while Richard has retired from teaching art at Bootham School and is now a full-time painter after moving south from York.”
Barnes at the double opened over the weekend. “This is a victory lap for us,” says Greg. “We are in many ways going back to our source with Richard’s York cityscapes, but the art scene in York has changed so much, and the paintings of both Barneses are now so collectible, that though we’re tipping the hat to our first exhibition, we’re much more excited about the here and now.
“The York that Richard paints feels very contemporary, very now, and the idiosyncratic vigour with which Chantal pushes paint around is a wholly new visual idea.”
Richard moved to “just north of London” a little over a year ago. “Both my daughters had had babies – on the same day in the same hospital! – and we were going up and down the country to see them,” he says, explaining the move south.
“I also think the experience of lockdown made us think about moving, giving me a new challenge of building a studio in the back garden. That’s been an exciting adventure, building it from scratch, with views out over the Chilterns.
“It’s my absolute dream, having had all those experiences of painting for so long. I’ve designed it just right for painting big paintings – it’s like the length of a New York loft, but it’s not a warehouse! – and I’m able to paint paintings up to 16ft by 8ft.”
All Richard’s works on show are being exhibited for the first time, some developed from initial drawings in lockdown, some painted since leaving the city. “During lockdown, I was still in York. When it was completely empty, I’d walk into York city centre in the early morning, around six o’clock, and set up by the Minster,” he says.
“It was the most remarkable experience, where you could even hear the echo from the Minster walls of the birds flying by. It was like walking on an empty beach; a sensation you don’t ever experience in York.
“Painting by the Minster at that time made you much more aware that you were only there in this world for a brief moment, but the Minster had been there forever. That was a big influence on me wanting to do one last York hurrah, even though the paintings are in the same style as before.”
Richard still feels the magnetic pull of York. “There’s that yearning for a place when you leave, and I’m like that about York,” he says. “When I go back to do some drawings, I feel so drawn to it, having spent most of my artistic life there.
“I’ve always thought of York as this incredibly exceptional place, and I’ve tried to make it magical in my paintings. Leaving York has made it feel even more so. Getting there takes less than two hours on the train, and it’s now like a place of memory for me. Because I’ve painted it so often, I wanted to capture that in one last exhibition for Greg and Ails.”
Greg looks back fondly over the McGees’ Tower Street years, not least Richard’s impact. “Richard really helped to galvanise our business plan back in 2005, which was at that point a general desire to exhibit exciting art. He helped distil that down into an irreducible manifesto.
“Go primarily for paintings, paintings that are instantly recognisable as being from the McGee stable. Grab the attention of passers-by, paint the gallery front yellow, which, although a Choir of Vision inception, had its roots in the initial vision Richard helped us shape.
“Since then, we’ve exhibited Elaine Thomas CBE; Dave Pearson; ska legend Horace Panter, of The Specials. We’ve had exhibitions officially opened by Sir Ian Botham, when we launched art from Dubai celebrity artist Jim Wheat; 1960s’ painter and friend of The Beatles Doug Binder has had solo shows here.
“It’s been a wild and fulfilling ride here, opposite York’s most recognisable landmark [Clifford’s Tower], but the time has come to leave the building, and we’re doing it in style with Barnes + Barnes.”
Contemporary Painting: Barnes + Barnes’ straddles According To McGee’s past as gallerists but looks forward too. “As an exhibition, it transcends this building, and so we’ll be ready to run it again in the future,” vows Greg.
“Where that will be, we can’t yet say, but that unpredictability, with the liberty and excitement that come with it, was the reason we got into running an art gallery in the first place. This exhibition reflects that. As soon as Chapter II emerges over the horizon, we’ll let you know.”
In turn keen to praise the McGees – who started their gallery under the name of The ArtSpace – Richard says: “Greg and Ails have made an exceptional contribution to the city’s contemporary art scene.
“York is often seen through a traditional lens, but they have taken a bold approach by exhibiting all sorts of artists, and their first reason for exhibiting any artist hasn’t been for commercial potential but because they loved the work.
“They have taken that risk, and for someone to do that, to just say ‘let’s give this a go’, has made a huge impact on York’s art world. They could easily have played to the tourists, but they have steadfastly not done that.
“They’ve given so many artists a show who have gone on to be very successful. They always look to support artists, and because they’re very independent minded they don’t seek Arts Council backing, but artists reciprocate their support by wanting to exhibit there.”
Daughter Chantal is one such artist. Born and bred in York, she attended Huntington School, where her art teacher just happened to be a certain Ails McGee. “She really loved the vibe of the art department,” recalls Richard.
“She then studied Fine Art, Film and Television at Aberystwyth, graduating with a First, and supported her travels around the world with her painting, before becoming a successful television producer.
“But during lockdown she realised she wanted to commit more fully to painting, and winning a prize at a North York Moors National Park exhibition [at the Inspired By…Gallery in Danby] encouraged her even more.”
Chantal began to paint abstract works to complement her landscapes and portraiture. “She’s been influenced by her experiences in North Yorkshire, painting the coast, and she’s had plenty of success in London, working with galleries and doing commissions, and in the States too,” says Richard,
“Her studio is very near mine and now our relationship is not just being her dad but being another artist too. The nice thing is that we can go to exhibitions together [in London] and she’s really in tune with much more contemporary work!”
For Barnes + Barnes, they have painted one work together of Wast Water in the Lake District. “The reason we chose there was because we did a joint exhibition with my mother in aid of Water Relief in Africa, and my mother had painted Wast Water for that show,” says Richard.
“As a tribute to her, Chantal and I went back to Wast Water to paint from the same viewpoint. We were hoping for one of those glorious, beautiful, sun-lit Lakes days, but it was one of those equally glorious, dark but spectacularly gloomy days!”
Seek out the resulting painting in Contemporary Painting: Barnes + Barnes, running at According To McGee, Tower Street, York, until Sunday, September 25.