‘You should have been there’ A personal view of Coventry Fine Art in the mid 1980s.
I came to study Fine Art at Coventry after completing the Foundation Course at Winchester. It seemed an excellent ‘fit’ after my year at Winchester where the emphasis was on art as performative process, ideas (both ‘political’ and formal) and the primacy of drawing. You see, Coventry had a bit of a reputation back then - an exciting one in my view - as one of the the former centres of Art & Language. However, by my arrival, the focus had begun to shift and was being shifted - quite markedly - towards (to steal the title of a show around this time at the Royal Academy) a ‘New Spirit in Painting’. And in terms of the political atmosphere of the time, there was also plenty going on during my time at Coventry (not least the NUM national strike affecting nearby pits at Keresley and Daw Mill, and a government squeeze on higher education funding).
So into this heady mix of creative experimentation and political - micro and macro -manoeuvring came Alan van Wijgerden. There were definitely clannish tendencies within the Coventry Fine Art student community - of which I became quietly keen proselytising member - and Alan was, then, definitely not one of ‘us’. And by that I mean those of us drawn towards critical theory and visual culture - and not even an art student(!). Some of the ‘conceptualists’ distinguished themselves from even the painters and sculptors on the same course...And whilst we art students were having heady political and philosophical discussions across the road in The Oak, Alan was stalking us often with his camera - he came to ‘our’ parties, the student functions in the Union basement and down at the Dog & Trumpet. He dropped in at our student digs. He won’t mind me saying this but ‘we’ thought he was a bit odd and definitely a bit of an outsider - which is a bit ironic coming from a community of students some of whom prided themselves on their ‘otherness’. The Oak sort of doubled as an art student common room...both lunchtimes and evenings (finances permitting) would see both students and staff rubbing along - even if the painters and sculptors were sometimes sitting on one side of the bar and the mixed-media students were huddled on the other.
Of the Art Faculty’s permanent staff I looked towards most often - in no particular order were: Dick Whall, John Yeadon, Val Hill (from Communication Studies) and, initially, Graham Howard (one of the Art and Language contributors)...and, of course, fellow students were always a catalyst for ideas and criticism - and not just in formal studio ‘crits’ (sometimes these studio crits could be dissecting and brutal). Graham Howard once accused me of being ‘intellectually lazy’ - that’s certainly brutal - but even if such an intervention was not premeditated it certainly worked...my sketchbooks started to fill up with scrawled political and philosophical notes as well as drawings. I drew increasing inspiration from a span of theorists and art practitioners from Derrida and Lacan to Duchamp, Ad Reinhardt and Breton...to namecheck just a few...and music, that too added to the mix: Harry Partch, Terry Riley, The Ramones, The Fall...
Back in the mid 1980’s, I don’t think any of us had a clue about how all this might pan out, but unlike me, still an unreconstructed Duchampian, Alan has remained doggedly determined - ‘driven’ even, and now we see, more than thirty years later, some of the results - in a new context of his unwavering - not to say ‘stalking’ cinematic eye. I can’t think of a different phrase - looking at these fascinating pictorial documents now, they all have the quality of a frame snatched from a strip of documentary celluloid. Not a unique approach by any means but it’s impossible to view these images objectively - it’s their particularity - one is even of my bedroom in digs on the Kingsway....each have something of the Barthes ‘punctum’ about them, their memorialising gaining greater power with the passing years. So, well into the 21st century Alan is still the documenter - not just passively recording, but, perhaps, actively shaping a very particular history - the few years with Coventry Fine Art being just a short chapter in a still continually developing oeuvre. He’s still there forging on. I kind of admire that.
Glenn Harvey BA (Hons) MA [Coventry] MA [Essex]