HARRY Malkin’s new exhibition at According To McGee in York has the title of A Life Underground: Workings From The Coalface.
So did his previous show there in February 2006, when the gallery operated as The ArtSpace, but if the show’s repeat name suggests no change, think again.
“Different thoughts, different times,” says the laconic Harry, a former Fryston Colliery miner, who turned to drawing and painting when the pit closed in 1984 at the height of the Thatcher-Heseltine cull.
“The people in power may change, but the Conservatives don’t. It’s as if they’ve got a big book that says ‘This is what Conservatives do’. Open at Page 1 and it reads: Cut. Cut. Cut.
“Heseltine’s still there, Tebbit’s still around; Mrs Thatcher still would be, if she hadn’t lost her mind…”
You sense the wounds are still deep and indeed may never heal for Harry, who followed his father and grandfather down the Yorkshire pit.
“Not satisfied with closing the mines down, they’re now cutting funding and withdrawing it over the coming years from the Mining Museum [the National Coal Mining Museum at Overton, Wakefield]. So now they’re going to close down our history too.”
Could the museum close?
“I don’t think that’ll happen but cuts certainly won’t encourage it to develop in the way we want it to,” says Harry.
His paintings are steeped in 20th century history, and just as they made such an impression in York in 2006, so his latest works do in 2011.
“Harry Malkin’s first-hand depictions of mining are the finest in the UK, endowing torch-lit moments of toil with a muscular theatricality,” says gallery co-owner Greg McGee.
“Cheeks and eye sockets are ink black, shoulders are slick crescents, and amidst the trembling chiaroscuro the figures quicken and bristle in their brutal work. Their poise and movements are perfectly calibrated with the instinct and knowledge hewn from many decades’ worth of witnessing and working more than one mile deep underground.”
While Greg waxes lyrical about “muscular theatricality” in the paintings and charcoal drawings, Harry sees another common thread, in less poetic language. “There’s a strong sense of the relationship of the men working together,” he says. “It’s how we strive for a common end and how we work when we have to strive together.
“When times are good, we don’t work like that, but when times are hard, people pull together, like now in Egypt and Libya.”
Increasingly, Harry’s working life is being taken up with public art commissions, such historical footnotes as memorials for his own pit, Fryston Colliery, Bywater Colliery and the Methley Mining Memorial. “It started off with my painting being supported by doing public art works; now it’s the other way round,” he says.
Through his works, both public and private, Harry Malkin will have his place in British mining history.
“Harry’s memories of life underground, the graft, and the subsequent art that so beautifully depicts it, belongs to a disappearing world and thus is all the more precious,” says Greg.
“Disappearing world?” questions Harry. “It’s disappearing, although it ain’t disappeared. It’s just moved to China and India.”
• Harry Malkin, A Life Underground: Workings From The Coalface opens tomorrow at According To McGee, Tower Street, York, with a private view from 6pm to 7pm. The exhibition will run until March 28.