Finding the Value: Contemporary Artists Explore Aspects of the Madsen Collection

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Contemporary / Exhibitions / Galleries / JamesNorris / Solitude

In 2011, Peter Madsen and his sister Karen left their estates to York Museums Trust. The estates included a vast collection of artworks and curiosities. Since then, five artists – Andrew Bracey, Susie MacMurray, Yvette Hawkins, Alison Erika Forde and Simon Venus – received commissions to make new artworks, addressing these artefacts. The final pieces are currently exhibited at York St Mary’s, under the collective title ‘Finding the Value’. Value in the art world is a highly contentious issue that has tenets far and wide across culture. The subjective value of art is explored here. The artists respond to personally valued artefacts that do not belong to them.

Since Cezanne’s ‘The Card Players’ sold for more than $250 million dollars, the value of art has been increasingly questioned – what is it that really makes something worthy of so much money? Is it the name, the image, the skill, the cultural placement…? The ontological issue surrounding value in art is vast and multitudinous.

Using what is described as the ‘residue’ of the bequest, the five artists explore questions regarding the cultural and monetary value these objects hold. Susie MacMurray’s ‘Legacy I’ (2014) comprises of a leather case that lays open to reveal small, unusually shaped objects wrapped meticulously in golden thread. The colours are alluring and exuberant – one seems to be invited to imagine and wonder what worth the wrapped ‘gifts’ possess.

‘Legacy I’ suggests that value may lie not in the form but in the mystique of the artwork, while gesturing towards a deeply personal history, concealed, immaterial. Objects are transformed and obscured, renewed by new materiality. They glitter and cause the viewer to ponder what is hidden behind the golden thread.

Yvette Hawkins takes on another aspect; her work ‘Casing In’ (2014) sees old, hand-bound books encased with threads that have been spun by silk worms. This four-week process gives the worms chance to form the silk. The use of this delicate and skilled process places notions of time and skill within the realms of finding ‘value’. One may equate time and craftsmanship to worth here. Perhaps this is echoed in the work of Simon Venus, whose piece ‘Passed On’ consists of a triptych of display boxes with embedded mechanised facets. As these objects are given life, one begins to consider the people behind the objects and the cultural worth of one’s personal, treasured possessions.

Alison Erika Forde’s ‘helping hands’ (2014) focuses on the original and personal value of the bequest by placing them in a supposed ‘original’ context. The piece is a recreation of what seems to be the corner of a house with wallpapered walls, which support the paintings, along with a small 1970’s display cabinet, which holds plates, ornaments and other trinkets. Certainly for Forde, the worth of an object has to do with its (perceived) history.

Andrew Bracey created ‘ReconFigure Painting’ (2014). As the name suggests, this work deals with the re-discovery of what is already present. Placed at the heart of York St Mary’s is a three-sided room that is mirrored on the outside and inside; the three walls are clad with paintings. Bracey presents a geometric sequences of coloured triangles that cover figures in order to create new focal points and to re-consider the dominance of figural representations within artworks. He compares this to walking along a high street and seeing a series of chain shops, only to look up to see some stunning architecture that could easily have been missed. Concerns as to ‘who’ was painted to begin with are played with, raising questions in terms of the fate of the original image. What was deemed a ‘worthless’ piece of art has now been adorned with paint and a new set of ideas – has this now developed and changed the value in anyway? Is it now worth more to us?


Most of the exhibition pieces are for sale – the proof is in the eating as to whether these artefacts have gained monetary value. If indeed they have, perhaps the exhibition remarks on the archaic and subjective personal object as a redundant marker of value, whereas the modern audience prefers ideas, skills and the cultural significance of a certain contemporary audience.

As Marcel Duchamp remarked – aesthetic delectation is a danger to be avoided – perhaps art no longer needs beauty, but rather something else. Perhaps contemporary art needs to consist of politicised ideas, to be made with skill, or to carry names of important figures in the art world. But perhaps that is too much. Maybe it is simply down to, ‘is it any good and do you like it?’

‘Finding the Value’ is displayed at York St Mary’s from 4th July until 2nd November 2014. It makes for an intriguing, thought-provoking experience that deals very gently and generously with key questions surrounding the value of art in contemporary society. This project, along with the further sales of the Madsen bequest, has made the refurbishment of York Art Gallery possible. With thanks to the Madsen bequest, art makes way for more art.

Further information, including a beautiful video about the exhibition, can be found on York Museums Trust’s website.

Andrew Bracey, ‘ReconFigure Painting’ (Madsen 19). 2014. Photograph by Adam Thompson. Image.

James Norris, 13th August 2014.



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