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Wide Eyed And Legless: Duggie Fields’s House Party
John Quin , June 16th, 2018 08:54

John Quin tapes his head on in Glasgow with the madcap of British post-pop figuration

Duggie Fields, The Modern Institute, Glasgow International 2018

Before Weird New Britain there was Weird Old Britain and it didn’t come much weirder than the cultural scene of the 1980’s. That low decade began promisingly. A line of malcontents could be found standing frozen at many a post-punk stage front. You’d see them huddle, sullen in grey Oxfam demob suits with a copy of Malone Dies peeking out from an over-stuffed pocket. Being spotted at a Magazine gig with a Beckett or Plath paperback on ostentatious display was an obligatory indulgence.

But sometime around 1982 pop life went all po-mo; ubiquitous visuals using garish colour combinations meant a night at the local disco felt like you were marinating in a giant bowl of fruit salad: Club Tropicana was in full effect. There were few reasons to be cheerful yet cash-strapped tykes from Tain to Tunbridge Wells dressed up in high-waisters and beige braces like August Darnell and sang ‘I’m a Wonderful Thing, Baby’ at dance halls with names like ‘Ultratech’. Things would get stranger still…

In the art world Duggie Fields was around and about. Fields had form – as a survivor of the lysergic 1960s, his poptastic cred was solid – apparently he still lives in the flat he once shared with Syd Barrett, the arch madcap himself. At Glasgow’s Modern Institute gallery this early summer there was a mock-up of Fields’s own living space – his bedroom, bathroom, dining area, and so on – a zone that captures the full outlandishness of the 80s. The décor is, ah, extreme. Eyeballs take a pounding. There are nods to Stanley Kubrick’s stylings in A Clockwork Orange (1971); ten minutes in and you feel confined and queasy like Alex the droog undergoing the Ludovico Technique. Fields fearlessly calls his style MAXIMALism.

Some of his early works before the 80s are here too and they are to be found, well… early on. Duggie himself is in the entrance hall as depicted in Partial Self-Portrait (1977). The top of his head has been casually sliced off as if it were a boiled egg. There’s a Mondrian grid reference on his torso and the naïf stylings of his facial features recall the roughness of early computer graphics. In a similar vein, 2 Very Similar Ladies (1970) predicts the tacky, seductive glamour of those first Roxy Music album covers.

Moving into the living area we see a settee covered in a ghastly leopard print throw and cushions with patterns that look like a combination of Allen Jones’s lurid representations of women and the Korova milk bar beloved of the aforementioned Alex. Here too, propped up against a wall, is the large and more recent canvas Sculpture Garden (1995) with its full-on reference to one of Hans Bellmer’s dodgy dolls. A staring eye glares out at you. I’m beginning to feel a little scared. There’s a computer monitor showing a video of Fields with trademark kiss-curl cavorting in a pillar-box red suit. A background soundtrack of early 80s synth pop plays and on top of this he’s giving it sprachgesang with lines about the “naughty west end” and, “shut that door” – this latter the catchphrase of Larry Grayson, that near-forgotten camp comedian of the decade. The Queen is in there somewhere too. One can imagine Princess Diana being a fan of Fields. The dazzling trashy colours, the synth-drums and the incessant smile-though-your-heart-is-breaking contrivance of it all. The 80s felt like this.

Here too is a table in the shape of an easel – a common visual trope for Fields. And there are more of his paintings; there are stacks of these. Three enamel ashtrays are set in the shape of the letters – A, R and T. A naked plastic doll is perched on the R. Maybe it’s right to be nervous now. In fact there are nudes everywhere: here is a Charles Atlas type in a posing pouch, there are some topless Venusians – many of which are decapitated, limbless. And there are piles of chopped off legs, decapitated heads – imagine a day-glo Manga version of de Sade. You would think very carefully about staying here overnight if Fields put his place up for Airbnb.

As an unapologetic post-modernist Fields is keen on art referentiality and so there are frequent winks to Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, and Piet Mondrian. The New Romantic era had a daffy love for Surrealism thus casually appropriating its lip couches on album covers and generally copping its flaccid, anaemic eroticism. Fields’s The Ambivalence of Nature (1982) has another stripped down mutilated figure done in a bold line; the creepy effect is more Patrick Bateman than Patrick Caulfield.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Fields was subject to that classic 80s phenomenon: becoming big in Japan. A cartoon-ish version of Fields appeared in TV ads over there. Life-size cutouts of Duggie were to be seen in department stores. There’s one to be found here too standing near his loo. He’s dressed in a cobalt-blue suit, white shirt and handkerchief, red tie and white loafers; he holds his hands behind his back and his hair is styled into another of those black kiss-curls. He looks like an obsequious sales assistant in a department store about to ask – are you being served?

Back then Fields managed to irritate Brian Sewell and Waldemar Januszczak so you could argue he was doing something right. But with all the slicing’s and dicing’s on the walls it is hard not to detect a whiff of casual misogyny at work in this house, a cloying aroma more rank than Brut aftershave. The 80s smelled like this. Maybe my real problem with this show is that I just couldn’t get Timmy Mallett out of my head. The children’s TV entertainer had the same interest in ‘striking’ visuals, loud clothes; he too has an irrepressible wackiness. You might see these rooms as a sickly mash up of hedonism and disaster capitalism. Perhaps this old weirdness is a predictor for the upcoming new weirdness we are in for post-Brexit. If so we’d better be wide-awake.