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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Bar Art: Madison's
by Daniel Jewesbury
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Madison's is a large bar, restaurant and hotel on the site of what was once the York Hotel, on Botanic Avenue. Botanic is one of Belfast's café-lined boulevards of spectacular consumption (that is, a place where consumption is made a public activity, in a kind of private-public space); in fact, it was one of the first. The original cafés like Maggie May's now sit alongside the newer emporiums, those basing their businesses more on frothed milk beverages than on wholesome platefuls of congealed fat. Similarly, Madison's could be looked on as a 'first-generation' cocktail bar, predating establishments like Tatu and The Apartment.
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The thing about this is that Madison's now looks curiously dated. Its postmodern appropriation of art deco (sub-deco? post-deco?) and its awkwardly uncomfortable furnishings are seen as distinctly passé by those in the know (the pack of Tony & Guy clone-rejects who slavishly crowd into the newest New York-ripoff spot between Thursday and Saturday nights).
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The art starts before you even get inside. Craning out from the façade of the building is a grotesque post-gargoyle (which somehow doesn't quite fit into the rest of the décor), wittily shown trying to extricate itself from the bricks and mortar and crash down onto the street below. The ironwork leading up the front steps establishes the deco theme, albeit in a debased fashion. Inside, it's divided into a bar area, a row of café tables lining the window, and a central atrium containing the restaurant seating as well as the main 'art' on display.
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Madison's has a policy of rotating its displays of artwork, each being displayed for several months. Hung high up above the diners in the atrium area, the paintings (they're always paintings) need to be large and reasonably striking to command any attention. Recently a series of blurry semi-photo-realistic canvases that seemed to have been based on childhood photographs, some of which were actually quite innocuous, were replaced with a new set of equally 'bold' works.
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These paintings are unfortunately quite hideous. Collectively based on a swirling pseudo-William Blake / John Martin / JMW Turner theme, the series seems to break into a number of smaller interests. First we have the 'mountains and sea' collection, which, unlike Helen Frankenthaler's subtle, subdued works of the same name (overlapping fields of colour painted onto raw canvas), show that the anonymous artist is incapable of inventively (or even proficiently) mixing colour. Blues and greens are indiscriminately slopped about on the canvas to convey 'sea' or 'sky', while darker tones combine into a sludgy brown to represent 'landscape'.
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The only two paintings to feature figures combine the apocalyptic masterpieces of Martin and Turner with the venerable field of charity shop Christmas card illustration. In the first, a number of shadowy (for which, read 'poorly drawn'), asexual figures seem to represent the three Wise Men come to visit the baby Jesus. They are caught in the middle of a pastiche of a Turnerian whorl of light, but look more like the characters emerging from the Twilight Zone in the opening credits of that programme. The second of the figurative works is actually quite different, the figures pale human-shaped outlines delineated against a blend of oranges and reds.
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In the small upstairs dining area (where unpopular guests are banished high above the fun below), a pair of works hang opposite one another, simple continuations of the whirling, swirling theme, in single colours, green in one case and blue in the other.
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What do these paintings add to the interior décor of the bar? Absolutely nothing. The intention, of course, is to break the monotony of all that drab brown, to show that the owners are both cultured and moneyed (and of course to reinforce the fallacy that the two are somehow connected), and to make the patrons feel that some of this reflects on them. In the past five years, the emerging 30- to 40-year-old post-ceasefire Belfast middle class have been spoilt for choice for venues in which to display their sophistication. Usually, these parade grounds display only the superficiality of such pursuits. Only occasionally is the overall effect so awful that the intention backfires completely.
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