From one end of the gallery, Susie MacMurray’s latest work is barely visible. Up close, the gold strands form a delicate mesh which stretches right across the far wall.
However, it’s from the side that the work really comes into its own. “Good, isn’t it?” says MacMurray who is just putting the finishing touches to the piece which will be one of the focal points of York Art Gallery when it reopens next month following an £8m renovation. “Suddenly the entire wall burns bright gold. I always try to create work which changes depending where you view it from. I like to take people by surprise with work that doesn’t reveal itself immediately.”
Halo has been inspired by the gallery’s Lycett Green collection of Italian Renaissance altarpieces which made use of gold leaf, a material historically regarded as sacred. The pieces date from the 14th to the 18th century and the gallery’s own works by the likes of Bernardo Daddi and Bernardino Fungai will be complemented by significant loans from major collections.
“It’s finally all coming together,” says National Gallery curatorial trainee Eloise Donnelly, who has spent months researching the various techniques used to create the Old Masters. “There is still a lot to do and a couple of the loan works are still to arrive, but standing here now with Susie’s contemporary piece sitting side by side with these historic paintings we have definitely achieved what we set out to.
“In the early Renaissance period, gold was seen as the most holy material on earth and it was used to represent celestial light and the halos of sacred figures. The pieces were intended for churches and artists developed incredibly sophisticated methods for embellishing the gold to create textures and patterns which would have shimmered under the flickering candlelight. Susie’s work has that same ethereal quality and it shows the continuation of artistic practice throughout the centuries.”
It’s a theme replicated throughout the gallery, which now boasts 60 per cent more exhibition space. Elsewhere on the ground floor are rooms dedicated to the gallery’s impressive collection of portraits and landscapes and alongside the historic paintings sits contemporary work.
“It’s about allowing visitors to trace the story of art, rather than seeing work as belonging to isolated periods,” says Donnelly. “York Art Gallery has such an incredible collection and this redevelopment means more of if than ever before will be on view when we finally open our doors on August 1.”
The biggest change is on the first floor where the roof space has been opened up to house the new Centre of Ceramic Art. Containing some 5,500 objects by 600 artists, it is the largest and among the most important ceramic collections in the UK. Display cases are already packed with bowls, jugs and vases and work is now beginning on assembling a brand new installation by Clare Twomey.
Formed from 10,000 plain ceramic bowls, representing the number of hours it takes to become a master craftsman, the work will be visible from the ground floor. It should give the gallery a suitable wow factor, which will be vital in getting paying visitors through the doors. While previously entry had always been free, like most arts organisations it has faced substantial cuts to its annual budget and has been left with no option but to introduce admission fees.
It’s not ideal, but it looks like visitors will get a lot for their money. As well as the new exhibition spaces inside, and a temporary exhibition by York illustrator Mark Hearld, the outside is also on its way to being transformed. Previously inaccessible grounds will be opened up, linking the rear of the gallery with Museum Gardens next door and planting is about to get under way on the edible wood, which will help supply the gallery’s new eaterie, run by York independent business Cafe No 8.
“The gallery closed in 2013 and while there has obviously been an incredible amount of hard work going on behind the scenes we now just can’t wait to do the big reveal,” says curator of art Laura Turner. “This space will give us a real foundation to build on in the future and it will give the city of York the art gallery which it really deserves.”
York Art Gallery reopens to the public on August 1. A special preview event will take place on July 30. Tickets cost £20 and for more details go to www.yorkartgallery.org.uk