Sunday 27 April 2014

Announcing David Mabb

‘On a touché au vers’. Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous 1894 remark could well be applied, with the necessary modifications, to visual artist David Mabb who, for some 15 years now, has ‘touché’, i.e. productively tampered with, the designs of William Morris. The typical Mabb artefact involves two elements: Morris’s floral late nineteenth-century imagery is boldly contrasted with the more aggressive, often geometrical iconography of the early twentieth-century Soviet avantgarde. The two modes of imagery, and by implication the two moments of socialism they represent, deeply unsettle each other, but without any possibility, on our part, of synthesising the two.

Mabb’s new exhibition, 'Announcer' – which debuts at the Focal Point Gallery in my old hometown Southend-on-sea – could be seen as involving three elements rather than two. El Lissitsky images sit strikingly on top of often ornate pages from the Morris-Burne-Jones Kelmscott Chaucer – so far, so Mabbian – but the semantic content of Chaucer’s prose (if one leans in close to read it) means that thirteenth-century feudalism is also put into play alongside late-Victorian socialism and Soviet Communism. This three-way interaction is a step forward for Mabbian aesthetics, but still leaves the question of synthesis problematic.

Mabb’s sleek, sophisticated images are visually stunning, no doubt about it, particularly in the sheer scale with which they confront you in the Southend gallery. But why take this sustained detour through Morris and Constructivism rather than having a shot at an immediate contemporary political art of one’s own? Mabb marks out a space for the latter (the implication being that it will share aspects of both its predecessors without being reducible to either), but then does not deliver it. Is he thereby agreeing with Fredric Jameson, who in the 1980s used to argue that utopian representations had to be empty abstract schema because, in a postmodern image-culture, any positive content would at once be co-opted by the system, by consumer capitalism itself. Does this argument hold good today, do we still need to be as abstemious as that? After his 15 years of brilliant and thought-provoking montage – of clashing Morris and Constructivism together, and now Chaucer too – I wonder whether David Mabb might not take a risky next step towards a political art of his own, of our own. For certainly no-one’s contribution to an early twenty-first-century Communist aesthetics could be more important than his.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Flowers and Sex

In his still impressive biography of Morris, Jack Lindsay early on mentions ‘a combination that never ceased to excite him: a lovely girl merged with his childhood-imagery of flowers’ (p.4). One of the more inventive literary renderings of that particular fantasy must surely be this passage from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: ‘With quiet fingers he [Mellors] threaded a few forget-me-not flowers in the fine brown fleece of the mound of Venus. “There!” he said. “There’s forget-me-nots in the right place!” She [Constance Chatterley] looked down at the milky odd little flowers among the brown maiden hair at the lower tip of her body. “Doesn’t it look pretty!” she said’ (ch.15).

Whether Morris’s famously restless fingers ever occupied themselves threading flowers through Jane Burden’s pubic hair, we do not know (though we do know that pansies were later to be a sexual signal between Jane and W.S. Blunt). Not many Morris biographers have been bold enough to speculate about the details of Morris and Jane’s sex life, though Fiona MacCarthy characteristically pulls no punches in asking: ‘How did the honeymoon work out?’, and concludes rather unsettlingly that ‘Morris’s brusqueness and shyness may well have been a problem, combined with his peculiar jerkiness of movement’ (p.152). Hum, yes, physical jerkiness is certainly not what one wants in bed, so let’s hope that at some point Morris’s woman-plus-flowers fantasy did take the form of Mellor’s gentle floral practices.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Keywords and 1980s Art

William Morris gets a mention in Raymond Williams’s indispensable 1976 volume Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (over his choice of Communist as a political self-designation in the 1890s), and I went along to the Liverpool Tate exhibition ‘Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain’ with high expectations. The curators have picked thirteen of Williams’s keywords: these feature on the walls in a flamboyant script, while a rich selection of 1980s art – for the most part of a politically committed variety – is lined up opposite to them.

Well, that’s the theory, though there is in fact some slippage in the practice. David Hockney’s fine portrait of his parents, for instance, which according to the exhibition brochure should be aligned - rather boringly, one can’t help thinking - with ‘private’ actually hangs opposite the term ‘structural’, which certainly has you racking your brains to make connections between the two (the Oedipal triangle was the only linkage I could come up with). Similarly, Stephen McKenna’s painting of ‘An English Oak tree’ which according to the brochure belongs with ‘folk’, actually hangs opposite ‘violence’, a rather more challenging montage-effect. And Stuart Bisley’s untitled oakbeam and soft wood installation, which alludes to the heavy labour of the mining and shipbuilding industries in Sunderland, certainly touches on important Williams preoccupations (work and working-class experience), but is oddly placed opposite the term ‘myth'.

I think that in the end this is more a show about 1980s political art than about Raymond Williams’s historical semantics. But given the slant of its choice of keywords – criticism, formalist, materialism and theory all feature, for instance – there is something of a bias towards conceptual art by politically motivated artists who probably did have some general awareness of Williams’s work. Some of the artefacts on display themselves focus on issues of language – Rose English’s ‘Plato’s Chair’ performances interrogate such terms as death, the sublime, soul, representation and so on – so there is a nice fit there with the Williamsite framework . Overall, this exhibition is a salutary reminder of how varied and resourceful the radical art of the decade was (black, feminist, gay, lesbian, Irish and ecological as well as socialist voices are represented here), and how shrunken progressive political prospects were in the epoch of Thatcher, Regan and Kohl. Only Gorbachev’s coming to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 gives a flicker of hope, but then, look how that turned out.