British Museum’s Pushing paper exhibition arrives at Cooper Gallery

Barnsley’s Cooper Gallery is renowned for its eclectic collection of permanent and touring artworks that bring culture into the town. But this winter, the art gallery welcomes a ground-breaking, high profile, and first-of-its kind exhibition.

Pushing paper: contemporary drawing from 1970 to now is the first co-curated touring exhibition from the British Museum, with the Cooper Gallery selected to be one of only four provincial partner museums from around the UK.

The exciting exhibition focuses specifically on the diversity of drawings from the last 50 years and illustrates how artists experiment with the power of paper to express their ideas.

Visitors will have the chance to see graphic work by well-known names such as Tracey Emin, David Hockney and Grayson Perry, as well as emerging artists like Hamid Sulaiman and Rachel Duckhouse. For some artists, this is the first time their work has been on display to the public.

Grayson Perry from Pushing paper exhibition
Grayson Perry © The Trustees of the British Museum, Reproduced by permission of the artist

The project, which is funded by the Bridget Riley Art Foundation, first began in 2017 and is the British Museum’s first exhibition to focus exclusively on drawing from the 1970s to the modern day.

The Cooper Gallery’s exhibition officer, Alison Cooper, was chosen to represent Barnsley. She worked with other curators to devise a final selection of 56 works which are grouped into five themes: identity; place and space; time and memory; power and protest; and systems and process.

Amongst the oldest forms of human creativity, drawing is experiencing a resurgence in popularity as artists increasingly choose the medium as a means to examine the modern world, with topics ranging from explorations of gender and political activism to questions of belonging and human sexuality.

“Art should get people talking and the pieces in the exhibition explore different themes to raise conversation around viable topics,” Alison says.

Highlights of the Pushing paper exhibition include Phillip Guston’s notoriously satirical illustration of President Nixon, a conceptual piece by Pablo Bronstein about the colonial past of 19th century timekeeping, and a portrait of a Jewish girl sent to Auschwitz from Jan Vanriet’s Dossin series.

Jan Vanriet from Pushing paper exhibition
Jan Vanriet © The Trustees of the British Museum, Reproduced by permission of the artist

But Alison says the Pushing paper collection will take visitors by surprise at the definition of drawing. Many of the pieces encroach on territories traditionally associated with other mediums such as sculpture or textiles.

“It’s not just pen or pencil drawings on paper. All sorts of mediums have been used for mark making and to print on, from sunlight scorching wood to ink on burnt vellum. There is also a great mixture of career levels and art styles, and most of the artists are still living.

“My favourite two pieces are the Hanging Gardens of Rock City by Liliane Lijn which is a collage using cuttings of New York’s skyscrapers that the artist then drew greenery on top – it’s like a futuristic version of the High Line concept, the public park made from a disused railway which I’m a big fan of.

“The second piece I love is Uneven Friction by Frank Pudney which is a great example of processed lead and data capturing. But I loved the story behind it. There was no information about the piece so I had to do some detective work and found it came from an art prize and Frank was very surprised to be in the British Museum collection as he had no idea who’d bought his work,” Alison says.

This new collective way of working became a professional development opportunity for the galleries involved, with curators building upon their knowledge and benefitting from skill sharing. The partners also created a catalogue which provided them the opportunity to use the British Museum’s Study Rooms to research and write their own chapters.

“It was a very democratic process and really enlightening to see the priorities of other curators when choosing pieces for their respective museums and galleries. We debated which pieces worked well with each other and fit the themes, but also had to be mindful that they would be suitable for all the galleries involved in the project. While we each had different aims and objectives, thankfully we all thought on similar lines,” Alison says.

The Pushing paper exhibition is on at the Cooper Gallery until Saturday 5th February 2022 with free entry. This is the last time the collection can be seen together in England before it then goes to the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney in spring 2022.

As part of the Pushing paper exhibition, there is a programme of activities including drawing sessions which can be done in the gallery or at home. You can also take a virtual tour of exhibition and download an activity booklet and zine on the Cooper Gallery website.