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Theodore Major at Gallery Oldham

Wendy Jones finds that Gallery Oldham has gone to pot in a good way but isn’t sure about Theodore Major

Published on March 10th 2008.

Theodore Major at Gallery Oldham

Oldham Art Gallery became ‘Gallery Oldham’ when it got its posh-ish new building in 2000.

It was born out of one of those moments when councils SUDDENLY have a few quid to spare which must be spent by next Wednesday, and so we get a few metres of York paving, a bit of public art, or in this case a new Gallery. The latter turned out to be award-winning which was fortunate. There is height and light and space, and it brings a bit of glamour to the town. Shame they then went and surrounded it with more buildings so it's hard to get any real view of the place.

Going into the foyer, the first thing you see is a stunning chandelier, designed by Michael Trainor (and those innovative Art Department people), made from giant test tubes and lit by neon...still shining after all these years. Then a feeling of space, quite a good shop, and lifts, again neon-lit, designed by Peter Freeman. The lifts might be a bit haunted, as mine confidently announced, "going to the basement", as we rocketed to the second floor.

I was making a bee-line to the Theodore Major exhibition, when I spied the Felicity Aylieff ceramics, and was drawn to them like Marie Antoinette to a plate of cakes.

Amazing, bemusing, incredible thrown pots three or four metres high. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about clay, even just that it's 'mud' will have their socks well and truly removed by these works. Felicity Aylieff, who is senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, spent five months in China working at Mr Yo's Big Ware factory and is showing 12 pieces she commissioned and decorated during this residency. It can't have been an easy ride: she does say she learned to swear in Chinese. There is a happy notice saying: ‘Please Touch the Pots’, so you can hug them if you want, and you probably will.

My favourite was No.12, and decorated with bold slashes of cobalt oxide. Slightly reminiscent of David Garland’s work but then anybody using cobalt in an abstract form since 1989 have had that particular cross to bear. All the technical info on making and decorating is there. An enlightened child has written in the comments book, ‘Big Pots ROCK’ ......nothing else to be said.

Now then, now then, Mr Theodore Major.

First a bit of an intro. Theodore Major was born into abject poverty before WWI. He got himself an art education through sheer determination. Art critic, John Berger wrote that: ‘Major’s best canvases deserve to rank among the best English painting of our time'. Major however disliked, critics, the art world and the buying public alike. It’s only thanks to his daughter Mary's efforts that the curmudgeon’s work is on show for the public to view.

Overall though, this is a weird show. There are some lovely pieces: Sunset at Appley and Farm at Appley Bridge are a couple of them. Major used colour well and the painting is strong and vigorous. The trouble is they all remind you of somebody else.

There's Picasso and Matisse, Chagall, Nolde, and even (God help us) Lowry. Well, there would be, wouldn't there? None of the work bears a date, since he would start a piece one decade and finish it six later.

There’s a video interview with him filmed in the 70's. He comes across as the ‘Fred Dibnah’ of the brush, in that ‘Eee I'm a real character, I am’ way. I know, I know, I will probably be burned at the stake, for heaven's sake, the world and its dog just LOVES a character. Not me though.

In the course of the interview, Mr Major has a go at some poor benighted reviewer who had said he couldn't review the work as it was not dated. Major tells us that this is rubbish, as art is Timeless.That’s that then. You heard it here first.

Finally, TREES. A very lovely, earnest exhibition, mainly for younger viewers, about trees and what can be made from them. Good huge photographs by Stuart Royce. A wormery. Buttons to push and lights to be lit. And not a scrap of coloured plastic in sight.There is a God after all.

So, get off to Oldham then. You can get in some food shopping as well, should you be so inclined, as Sainsburys, are the next-door neighbours. When you're in there tell them to get their bloody car-park swept so that the poor gallery staff don't have to spend all day cleaning up the plastic bags that arrives at their door.

Theodore Major (1908-1999), until 10 May, Felicity Aylieff, Ceramics, until 19 April, Trees, until 14 June.

Gallery Oldham
Greaves Street
0161 770 4653

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AnonymousMarch 10th 2008.

Theodore Major was from Wigan and therefore it's not surprising he had a Lancashire accent.

JimMarch 10th 2008.

Actually Wendy has been a working artist for several millennia - or at least thirty years

AnonymousMarch 10th 2008.

So everything by Theodore Major reminds you of something by someone else? Knock me down with a feather! He was there when these other people were doing their stuff. He was an influence on them as they were on him. I suspect that the only reason you make this comment is that you have only recently become aware of Major's work, while you have known of that of Lowry (and others) for a long time. This doesn't mean that Major's work is derivative - he was producing it contemporaneously with these other artists. The fact that his work is new to you is down to his refusal to engage with the art establishment - and I think he made a poor judgement call there. But don't let your ignorance of his work blind you to the fact that he was a real driver and a real innovator in the Northern School.In my view Major was THE major British artist of the 20th century. I'm delighted that this exhibition is running so that more people can get to see his work.

AnonymousMarch 10th 2008.

I think Wendy needs to go away and learn a little more about art, would be interested to see how long she was in the gallery looking at Theodore Majors work as sounds as if it wasn't very long.

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