Warning! This is Contemporary Art

The provocative exhibition isn't for the faint of heart, but is well-worth challenging your preconceptions

Admittance to Warning! This is Contemporary Art at the Crescent Art Centre is ‘strictly limited to over 18s only’. Determined to avoid ‘safe’ art, the Warning Art Gallery curators Brian Nixon and Brendan Jamison have collected works dealing with sexuality, gender and mortality from controversial national and international artists.

So, should visitors to the newly opened gallery, which takes over the space on the second floor where the Dickon Hall Gallery was situated, prepare to be shocked? Well, maybe. There are certainly a few sets of genitalia on display – male, female and in transition – in the three brightly lit, white walled rooms of the gallery but it would be a stretch to describe this bold exhibition as salacious or particularly titillating. The imagery and concepts range from the provocative to the tender, but none of it seems designed to arouse.

In fact, a few of the pieces are likely to have the opposite effect. ‘The Sperm Harvesters’ in the second room is a pencil and paper drawing by Lydia Holmes that depicts penes sprouting from a desert landscape, with miniature women climbing on and lassoing them.

The drawing was inspired by stories of the Zimbabwean ‘Sugar Mamas’, who kidnap and sexually assault men in order to steal semen for unknown uses (theories range from ritual magic to face cream). Despite the dark theme, the piece itself is bizarrely cheerful, with one little woman waving her arms triumphantly from atop the glans.

Holmes also contributes another less graphic artwork to the exhibition. Pins pierce a lycra canvas in an undulating, globular pattern that turns from abstract to representative depending on where you stand.

Miguel Martin’s disturbing, crowded pen and ink canvas ‘Playground’, meanwhile, is another piece unlikely to tickle any but the most disturbing fancy. The skill with which the various figures, from debauched, demonic giants to children on swings, have been rendered only highlights the aggressive grotesquerie of the imagery. Nazi symbols stand out in this capitalist critique with familiar horror-movie themes.

Other pieces on display take a more positive approach to sexuality. Ciaran Magill’s nudes are beautiful and approachable, with his portrait of a transsexual caught on the liminal edge of gender identity. There is something tender in the painting of two male nudes in a room. The soft greys and yellow undertones they are drawn in give the captured moment a soft, pre-dawn feel.

A piece by curator Brendan Jamison (pictured below), whose previous works include his famous sugar sculptures and helicopters made of wool, turns two water containers into lovers through the application of brightly coloured, giant map pins. It is juvenile in the best way, innocent and cheerful.

Not all the art focuses on sexuality, either. US artist Sean Miller and collaborator Galen Olmsted subvert the idea of gallery’s ‘launching’ new artists with ‘Angel S**t’ (main above), a miniature catapult that literally launches Olmsted’s whorls of porcelain across the room. It also plays with the perception of porcelain as something delicate and pure, reducing it to a material you can crush underfoot and brush up at the end of the day.

Gail Ritche also eschews a direct approach in her Conflicted Memory series. At first glance these works appear to be nothing more than pleasant, well-executed sketches with a slight hint of the surreal: bullets in amongst the flowers, a woman diving towards a battle-ship. It is context that gives the art its meaning, however. Each drawing was created to represent a conversation Ritchie had with someone with Alzheimers.

One drawing of a faceless soldier and his faceless bride, for example, was created in response to a patient who commented, tragically: ‘I know I was married, but I can’t remember who she was.'

The entire exhibition is worthy of comment. There is no way that Patrick Colhoun’s surreal 19-part installation of latex, clay and hosiery – gimp masks with broken noses gathered to judge a headless torso stitched with red stockings (pictured above) – could go unnoticed.

The same can be said for Miranda Whall’s disconcerting, tongue-in-cheek sketches exploring self-stimulation and birds in The Budgie and Canary series. Then there are Stuart Roberts' collages of femininity in flux and Tracy Emin’s ‘See How They Grow’ etchings that proved so popular with visitors that the curators added more works from both artists.

I end my tour of the gallery with what Jamison describes as one of the exhibition's most controversial pieces, a video installation by Whall entitled ‘The 11th Day’. This work explores taboos, sexuality and ownership of the female body.

In it, the artist sits on a counter in a hardware store and at irregular intervals takes down her pants and checks her cervical fluid. It is certainly a thought-provoking piece, and the focus on the mechanics of fertility will resonate with women who have undergone fertility treatement. Yet, at the same time, it feels voyeuristic to watch too closely.

Not everything in the Warning Art Gallery is particularly to this critic’s personal tastes. There is nothing in the exhibition that is easy to pass with only a cursory look. Clearly, from the red stickers marking a lot of the art as sold, other visitors to the gallery agree. It seems that Jamison and Nixon were right about there being a market for edgier works.

Warning! This is Contemporary Art is at the Warning Art Gallery until June 15.