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Review of Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers from Here at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool

As one of the UK’s leading photography spaces, Open Eye’s latest offering explores the work of two very different artists in an exhibition that opens up their works parallels and shared interests. Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark both captured, in their own unique way, the emerging gay subculture and creative community who found refuge on the piers below New York’s 14th Street during the 1970s. 

On entering the gallery you’re confronted with a large photographic print of Matta-Clark’s Days End, a large crescent shaped void cut into the wall of Pier 52 which he illegally entered and took over. Monumental in its concentrated light, Matta-Clark aimed to pursue the idea that art could act as catalyst for urban regeneration. In contrast the other rooms contain images of Baltrop’s intimate documentation of the pier’s occupants. Baltrop was keen to be invisible to his subject, hanging himself from steel girders, capturing a truthful documentation of life on the margins and the freedom these spaces gave to their occupants.

A strong separation between life in the city and that on the piers, these ruins gave gay men space to step out of the closet, feel free to sunbath naked and cruise. Looking closely the naked figures of sunbathers innocently catching the hot summer rays its obvious how this nakedness and coinciding voyeurism soon moved to another level of promiscuity.

Balthrop, as a black homosexual man would have found a more intimate place within the pier’s community, while Matta-Clark as a white middle class man would have stood out; perhaps the reason his work is more political commentary than documentation. Most interestingly, despite operating in parallel and their works shared interest, Baltrop and Matta-Clark never officially met.

Liverpool’s connection with New York is explored by gallery Director Lorenzo Fusi; more specifically the decline and regeneration of the two cities dockland areas during the 1970s. Having previously curated a retrospective of Matta-Clark, Fusi was more than familiar with the artists work and of Baltrop’s documentation of it and was keen to explore the two in parallel for the first time in the UK.

In the way that Matta-Clark aimed to use art as a tool for regeneration, Fusi is making a political statement reflecting on Liverpool dockland’s regeneration and reminding us that gentrification is also a form of exclusion. As Liverpool’s Mann Island district, where Open Eye is situated, slowly becomes home to swanky luxury apartments, Fusi is reminding us of the underground subcultures that thrive on many cities margins, leaving us to wonder what happens to these communities once the developers move in.

Emma Sumner

Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers from Here, 7 December until 9 February, Open Eye Gallery, 19 Mann Island, Liverpool Waterfront, Liverpool, L3 1BP. www.openeye.org.uk

Image: @Gordon Matta-Clark, the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark

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