David Prentice Instrumental In Founding Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery Dies

David Prentice the artist who was instrumental in founding the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham has died age 77. He was also a renowned watercolour painter in his own right. Born in Solihull Mr Prentice trained at Moseley Road School of Art and Birmingham School of Art. He carried out national service with the Royal Artillery. He taught at Birmingham College of Art and Crafts, and City of Birmingham Polytechnic before retiring in 1986. After then he was artist in residence, or a visiting artist at Nottingham University, Trent Polytechnic, Oxford University and the UCE, and won numerous awards during his life.

In 1964, the artists’ group that founded Ikon published a prospectus that was as clear as it was idealistic. Their aesthetic proposition was neatly summarised: “Ikon is intended as an antithesis to exclusive art establishments and galleries. It was formed because of the need for an accessible place where the exchange of visual ideas can become a familiar reality.”

Ikon is an independent, not-for-profit exhibition space. One of a number of flagship institutions in the UK for the promotion and presentation of contemporary and modern art, like Camden Arts Centre (London), Arnolfini (Bristol) and Modern Art Oxford, it was founded in the 1960s. Its activity not only reflects the historical circumstances of Birmingham and the country as a whole since then, but also it constituted a distinct point of view on British post-war art history.

Ikon was first conceived of as a ‘gallery without walls’, a headquarters for a fluid artistic programme touring to non-art venues. In 1965 it took up residence in an octagonal glass-walled kiosk in Birmingham’s brave new Bullring precinct, adjacent to the landmark Rotunda building, before moving three years later to a decommissioned mortuary in nearby Swallow Street. Ikon started as a co-operative of volunteers, managerially democratic and non-hierarchical, at once aesthetically adventurous and accessible. Supported from the beginning by a modest and visionary couple, Angus and Midge Skene, it challenged a conservative local art world. Taking the idea of an ‘ikon’ as a mobile art object focused towards a local audience – as opposed to an exclusive approach of ‘art for art’s sake’ – it asserted a refreshing realism with respect to the place of art in society. The four artists officially listed as the founders of Ikon – Jesse Bruton, Robert Groves, Sylvani Merilion and David Prentice – were joined by several others in order to help develop and articulate the original vision. They included Peter Berry, Trevor Denning, Dinah Prentice and John Salt.

In the 1980s the gallery ushered in Postmodernism to make a decisive break in the conventionally linear narrative of artistic development. Then, arising out of post-painterly, conceptual impulses that characterised preceding years, there were lively discourses around post-feminism, post-structuralism and post-colonialism, manifested through a plethora of styles and media that in turn conveyed an attitude of ‘anything goes’. There was the famous return to painting (figurative painting especially and painterly), a shameless appropriationism that saw a ‘pick and mix’ from art history, non-western art and popular culture, an enthusiastic re-embrace of Dada and the challenge to notions of self-contained works of art through the increasing popularity of installation. In Britain, particularly, Postmodernism was a fast-moving zeitgeist that chimed in with broader cultural shifts, in particular the politics that evolved under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. Ikon’s programme during this decade, under the directorships of Hugh Stoddart (1978 – 81) and Antonia Payne (1981 – 88), must be considered in this context. Exhibiting artists included Rasheed Araeen, Gillian Ayres, Stuart Brisley, Helen Chadwick, Hannah Collins, Jochen Gerz, Paul Graham, Susan Hiller, Bert Irvine, Alan Miller, Pieter Laurens Mol, Dennis Oppenheim, Cornelia Parker and Sean Scully.

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