spacer
The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
Bar Art: Laverys
by Richard West
spacer
For the last few weeks the back bar of Laverys has been closed for refurbishment and it is only in the last few days that it has been restored to its former function, and weirdly, its former appearance. I recall a previous refurbishment and conclude that the interior decor is a decade long project to discover some kind of 1970s essence. This is the ground floor of course, I haven't been on the first floor for about four years but recall that it had nothing that could feasibly be described as art. That is unless, once again, one considers the decor, which I remember as a mixture of stainless steel and mirrors more usually found in bar toilets. In certain rarefied contexts this might be considered art but I doubt the thought has ever entered the mind of a single patron. I have only the vaguest memories of the second floor, confusingly including a club, pool tables and some kind of terrible paintings on the walls, perhaps produced by child killers to aid their rehabilitation. But as I say that is a long time ago and perhaps it never happened.
spacer
So I will limit myself to the ground floor of Laverys, front and back bars, and boldly start out with the claim that there is as much interesting art to be seen here as in any other establishment in the city, specialist or otherwise (note to self: Belfast brothels, do they have art and can it be seen by non-customers?). Like the upholstery and wallpaper the pictures on the walls leave a vague impression for the occasional visitor. On closer scrutiny however the question: 'My God, what am I doing here?' Is very forcefully placed in the viewer's mind. This is a sensation similar to that aroused by the Black Paintings of Goya and some more recent art, but not often, and not exactly for the same reasons. For the first thing to say about looking at the art in Laverys is that it is pointless to try and remove it from its context. And the context is not good. I do not mean merely that it is a dump, full of alcoholics clinging to the withering experiences of their youth. Rather, that this bar seems to invite this kind of negative reflection on human endeavour and destiny and in a way that seems particular to Belfast. After all Laverys is the bar that absolutely everyone in the city has been to at some stage in their lives.
spacer
This instructive pessimism is manifest in different ways in the front and back bars. The front bar is more polite in a kind of 'Sunday best', visiting the grandparents way; though it is unlikely many of the regulars have grandparents or do much on Sunday except drink. This bar portrays something of what we outwardly might like things to be. The back bar meanwhile is pure teenager's bedroom though strangely perfectly in tune with the regulars, who are rarely under the age of thirty. Here we have something more like a psychological portrait. In either case the general picture is not encouraging but it is fortifying. It says, 'imagine the worst'.
spacer
In the front bar a large amount of the walls are given over to photographs of the Lavery family. Like most family pictures these are boring and uninformative without say, a Lavery aunt on hand to interpret them. Then there are some prints of streets probably from the 50s or earlier, that are twee and banal. These are perhaps the model for the different paintings of Laverys itself that hang near the door and say almost nothing about the bar beyond giving a crude account of its appearance. This leaves a wall of prints by Heath Robinson a.k.a. The Gadget King.
spacer
Heath Robinson's subject matter is a mixture of Nazis and cooks having illicit dealings with policemen (such as giving them cakes over the garden fence). In both cases the social order is not really threatened but depicted as ridiculous and convoluted. The Nazis for example are quite unlike those we see on Channel 5, they devise floppy tanks and airborne vacuum cleaners. Surprisingly a number of pictures depict a German occupation and the madcap schemes that are devised to thwart it. The social order is very much that of the 1930s or earlier with the family overseen by men in top hats who may be absurd but that's just the way things are. One picture shows Noah, his family and animals, teetering on a mountain top. It may be about to fall down but at least we can see who's in charge.
spacer
The first picture you see on entering the back bar shows related subject matter but it is unclear what it is about. Two large spherical stones sit symmetrically on the edge of a lake. Arranged over them are a seal, a warthog, a fish, porcupine, lizard, toucan and snake. In the background we see a suspension bridge, power stations and a livid yellow and purple sunset. They are painted in such a way as to suggest partial experience but general unfamiliarity such as in medieval pictures of elephants. The artist, Gail Ritchie, painted the picture in 1991, perhaps after a visit to the zoo though the toucan suggests she never left the bar (and may still be there). Is there some kind of environmental message perhaps: close the power stations or the sky will turn purple and the warthogs will look at us accusingly? I cannot remember the state of the environmental debate in 1991, perhaps they had not settled on tigers and pandas then and it still seemed possible that heraldic porcupines could sway our sympathies. Strange the way the rocks look more animate than the seal. In fact the whole thing is strange.
spacer
On the back wall the 'outsider' style continues with two especially memorable artworks. In a dark corner, where it is not easily seen on a Saturday evening, is a large painting that includes a tiger and a pastiche self-portrait of Van Gogh. It is a jumbled sort of picture and judging by the number of references it includes, is a kind of ur-painting for outsider artists. It says 'this is my outsider inheritance, this many have been bonkers before me...' and quite right too, just because you're strange doesn't mean you shouldn't feel part of some greater strangeness.
spacer
Next is a classic picture from the heavy metal fraternity. The repertoire of images available to metal artists appears to be limited but here we have an innovation: taking the traditional motorbike and bones and combining them into a fantastic bone-bike. The garish colours unhappily suggest a children's cartoon, and now I think about it doesn't He-Man's arch enemy drive a very similar vehicle? So perhaps this picture is loosing some of its original menace.
spacer
Finally the back bar is decorated with a number of adverts and pages cut from magazines. If you have passed right through the ground floor and are just making your way to the back door then you will pass a framed magazine cutting under the title 'Eye Test'. I suspect this is taken from a porn mag of 1980s vintage and may even be from Esprit, Northern Ireland's own version of Playboy which started in Bangor in 1986. It is hard to tell if it is supposed to be funny. It shows lines of pictures of breasts and bums getting smaller until the last line of buttocks, which is captioned, 'this is the bottom line' (geddit). Maybe, as with Mr. Robinson's Nazis bums are just not as funny as they used to be. Or perhaps rather they do not inspire the same fear.
spacer
But for the diligent art lover, the Laverys collection at least offers some flavour of that fear and it is well worth sampling. You don't have to stay there for more than one pint. No really.
spacer
spacer
home | information | issues | artists & writers | columns | reviews
spacer