On Art, On Society

Pop Art and the Political

Not too long ago I visited the British Museum’s American Dream: From Pop to Present exhibition, which documents the American pop art movement from mid-century to present day. With Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and prints of celebrities firmly lodged in the collective consciousness, we assume that pop art is about using luscious colour palettes and new printing techniques to elevate banal objects and create icons irrespective of the subject’s actual characteristics. Yet this aesthetic has often been the medium for social commentary and critique – a point that the British Museum exhibition drives home most effectively.

Sure, some pop artists were not always politically charged. Take Ed Ruscha. Having published a book of 26 photographs of gas stations in the early ’60s, he expanded on the theme with a series of vibrant prints of one particular Standard station, chosen for its appealing geometric composition (after a little manipulation of some of the proportions and perspective, of course). Whilst this particular gas station was located in Texas, the print evokes the sunny optimism and sheen of Ruscha’s home city, Los Angeles. The artist often played with LA or California as themes for his work, screenprinting a series of Hollywood signs and using an innovative process to produce ‘liquid words’ spelling out “Made in California” in the saturated colour of freshly-squeezed juice.

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While American pop art has often concerned itself with capturing a vision of an increasingly affluent and commercialised USA, political undercurrents have frequently surfaced and left their mark. American Dream displays many examples of this, a few of which have really stuck with me. Chief among these is Andy Warhol’s deeply unsettling depiction of Richard Nixon, with his burning orange eyes, a near-gangrenous complexion and the tagline “Vote McGovern” as the deathblow. Willie Cole’s woodcut Stowage also makes for uncomfortable viewing; it comprises a blueprint of a slave ship and a border of irons to illustrate the continued servitude African Americans faced long after slavery was officially stamped out. More lighthearted yet still powerful are the posters produced by the Guerrilla Artists, an anonymous group with the mission of raising awareness of sexual discrimination in the art world. The exhibition shows that even Lichtenstein has taken on a political lean in his time: his instantly-recognisable comic book art parodies have featured above poems critiquing conservatism in society.
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Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 by Guerrilla Girls

The exhibition ends with a cold reflection on the American dream. One print calls out, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS CALLING IT QUITS EVERYTHING MUST GO” – a nod to the dreaded economic burst bubble and its casualties.

In many ways, society has improved dramatically since the pop artists started codifying social ills through printing. However, aspirations and optimism have been beaten down by economic strife, political apathy and chronic cynicism that shows no signs of abating. And the progress made towards equal rights for women and ethnic minorities in Western culture is by no means secure in the current climate.

Trump has promised to resuscitate the dream, make America great again. Sadly, Andy Warhol is no longer here to emphasise the absurdity of his hair, brows or pout with a rainbow of colour. Will a new breed of pop artists assume the mantle of political activism through print?

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On Art, On Society

A place to call home

There are conventional ideas about how the average person makes a home for themselves and potentially a family, too. In London, an intensifying housing shortage, unrelenting interest from foreign investors and a dearth of rights for renters all contribute to a frenzied preoccupation with the great search for a city-based home. We can’t help peering into the windows of estate agents as we pass by, “just curious”, and then wishing we hadn’t looked because £1,500,000 for a leasehold of a small house is, frankly, depressing. We lament rising rents and energy bills and demonise landlords in conversations with friends and colleagues. UK-wide, we watch reality TV shows addressing the challenges of home renovation or moving house entirely.

I’m as guilty any other for whining about the plight of young people trying to make a living in the city. Yet recently, I received a healthy dose of perspective, in the form of an  evocative photography exhibition at the Barbican. Constructing Worlds is a skillfully curated exploration of how people interact with architecture. This is where I first learned about Torre David in Caracas, Venezuela: an unfinished office building that many call home.

The 45-floor tower could easily have stood as a relic, a painful reminder of the economic collapse of the country in the late ’90s. However, its appropriation by hard-up urban inhabitants has turned a negative into a positive. Thousands have set up home and shop in the building, creating living spaces with found objects and establishing businesses that serve the emergent micro-community such as hair salons and grocery shops. Photographer Iwan Baan has has captured their lives through his camera lens, neither to pity nor romanticise a less-than-ideal state of affairs, but rather to showcase real human ingenuity and resourcefulness.

A family scene

A family scene

Micro-business in action

Micro-business in action

Dumbbells made using pulleys from the lifts that never were

Dumbbells made using pulleys from the lifts that never were

Conceptualising your home needn’t involve kitsch furnishings or the perfect feng shui.

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On Art

An Artist of the Underground

A friend living in Islington told me about a contemporary art gallery in her neighbourhood about a year ago, the Estorick Collection. As I’m a bit rubbish, it has taken me over a year to pay it a visit. My motivation for finally going last weekend was the current exhibition on ‘poster king’ Edward McKnight Kauffer, an American-born artist known principally for his posters commissioned by London Underground and the global oil and gas company Shell in the inter-war period.

The gallery is a Grade II-listed Georgian building, and retains the feeling of a home as opposed to a public cultural space; at times I felt as though I was wandering around a modern art lover’s sparsely-furnished living room. As for the art on display, I wasn’t greatly taken with works in the permanent collection. Kauffer’s poster art was, by some distance, superior to the sketches, sculptures and paintings by contemporary Italian artists that comprise the Estorick Collection.

The Edward Kauffer exhibition focused primarily on his transport posters. With his London Transport-commissioned posters, Kauffer idealised mundane, identikit suburban towns. Reminiscent of Van Gogh’s depiction of natural landscapes, the artist disregarded correct proportions and perspective in favour of creating vivid scenes that captured the imagination of rail travellers

Almost makes me want to visit Reigate. Almost

Almost makes me want to visit Reigate. Almost

A rather idealistic view of Watford

A rather idealistic view of Watford

Of all Kauffer’s works on display, the Winter Sales London Underground posters were my firm favourites. For these he took inspiration from the fleeting Vorticist movement of his time, cleverly layering geometric shapes to form pictures with real impact.

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London Underground is somewhat famed for its artistic sensitivities; the design of the Underground map itself prioritises style (although ultimately, usability) over geographical accuracy, and the roundel logo has become iconic worldwide. Tube trains now exhibit poetry as well as ads; tiled images decorating stations are not uncommon. I hope this tradition of Underground art continues, with future Kauffers gracing our tunnels and adding some colour to what is otherwise a rather grey commuter underworld.

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