A brush with the elite
Elaine Williams visits a school gallery where pupils - and the public - can come face to face with modern masters
On the walls of the gallery's mezzanine floor, large paintings with tightly controlled abstract organic shapes hang proud. Stephen Peirce, Royal Academy graduate and rising contemporary artist, is making playful connections between advances in bio-molecular engineering and visual form.
The question of where science ends and art begins is a cutting-edge issue, but this gallery is cutting-edge in itself. And although it is open to the public, it is part of a Northamptonshire school, where curator and artist Peter Monkman is a teacher.
Gallery@Wrenn is an extension of the art department at Wrenn school, a 1,400-strong comprehensive in Wellingborough. It is suspended above a large, airy workshop shared by artists and pupils. Designed to professional standards, it was established by Mr Monkman three years ago when the school committed to a new-build art department to make up for the lack of gallery space locally. If he could not take his students out to see contemporary art, Mr Monkman argued, he must bring the art to his students and the wider community.
He believes that contemporary art is well within the understanding of young people, and says the gallery benefits from being in a school just as his own art benefits from his teaching. He says: "As a teacher you have to be convincing, you have to focus on what will communicate to teenagers who may not want to be here and that skill feeds into all my other work. My art is all about being a teacher."
In a corner stands a series of stacked canvasses. This is Face Value, a collection of 17 in-your-face pupil portraits by Mr Monkman which has just arrived from an exhibition in Peterborough and is the next show to be hung at Wrenn.
One of these iconic portraits is of Dayne, a black Year 8 boy staring boldly out of a yellow background, due to hang in the National Portrait Gallery from June as part of the prestigious BP Portrait Award's shortlist exhibition.
Another is of Claire, Year 10, a study of the archetypal what-are-you-looking-at pose of adolescence. "I wanted to explore how we frame and categorise students," he says, "to ask how far, as teachers, we really know them."
The show is a good example of how Mr Monkman combines his life as a teacher with that of an artist. Many art teachers find the demands of the day job preclude developing their own creative life but, for Mr Monkman, they feed off each other. As head of department and the father of three small children, the 38-year-old uses his professional and domestic life in his art. For example, he snatches any chance to draw and uses these "obsessive doodles" as the basis of his pictures. These sketches form part of a body of work that has seen Mr Monkman selected for the BP Portrait Awards three times in nine years. His work has been shown at major venues such as Oxford's Museum of Modern Art, London's Bankside Gallery and the Phoenix Gallery, Brighton.
He advertises the Gallery@ Wrenn as an "artist-run" contemporary gallery for Northamptonshire, and over the past three years he has curated a series of half-termly shows, some challenging for a school environment. Beyond the Physical by Denise Walker, for example, featured drawings and video of naked male models, an exploration of Renaissance iconography of sacrifice and suffering. "The ethics of showing nude males within a school environment was hotly debated," says Mr Monkman.
David Jones, another Royal Academy graduate and a pupil at Wrenn during the 1970s, also inspired some lively argument with installations including Love Wall made up of thousands of front covers from Mills and Boon novels, and an installation reflecting on the oppressive nature of his own schooldays, which included charred exercise books stuck together with chewing gum.
For each show Mr Monkman holds a private view for the public, pupils and parents and produces a simple education pack. He uses the shows as a basis for his pupils' work. Recently, for example, pupils have been producing drawings and sculptures based on ideas underpinning the Stephen Peirce exhibition. Sophia Elliott, 12, says: "When you have the artist's work there you can look at it from different distances and see more in it. It brings ideas into your head." Mr Monkman gives a CD of pupils' related work to each artist who shows at the gallery.
During Mr Monkman's nine years at Wrenn, the GCSE pass rate in art has risen from 35 to 70 per cent and his A-level classes often achieve 100 per cent A grades, even though the number of students taking the subject post-16 has risen. The school spends around pound;2,000 a year on the gallery but admits that if Mr Monkman's time and commitment were taken into account, costs would be nearer to pound;30,000.
Headteacher Harry Darby says: "The pay-off of students having access to the work of high-calibre people as well as a teacher who is an artist is phenomenal. It's also a cracking example of what a learning community should be - students learning from artists and artists learning from the students."
Face Value is at the Gallery@Wrenn until May 16. Open to the public 9am-5pm by appointment. Tel: 01933 222793. The BP Portrait Award show at the National Portrait Gallery runs from June 12 to September 21. See www.npg.org.uk