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How Does It Feel? Michael Bracewell Show Explores Art & Pop, 1976–1995
Robert Barry , August 24th, 2019 09:37

The current show at Sprüth Magers, London, curated by British writer Michael Bracewell, explores the mutual fascination between the worlds of art and pop music in the 80s and 90s

Richard Hamilton, Diab DS-101 computer, 1985–89, Mixed Media 70 x 50 x 50 cm. © The Estate of Richard Hamilton

In his brilliant 2008 book, Remake/Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music, Michael Bracewell laid out “a complex but distinct configuration of points”, connecting the dots between the English art world and the music industry, between pop and pop art. Carefully and assiduously, he detailed the lives of a dazzlingly inventive group of artists – among them Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton, Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno – who together comprised “a set who chose to inhabit the point where fine art and the avant-garde met the vivacity of pop and fashion as an almost elemental force within modern society and culture, and who were eager to work with the potential of both.”

For Bracewell, Roxy Music, the group formed –“authored”, in Bracewell’s terms – by Bryan Ferry upon completing studies in fine art under Hamilton at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, “would be a modern triumph of the applied arts” for whose formation Gene Kelly, Smokey Robinson, John Cage, and Marcel Duchamp would all assume an influence of “equal importance”.

To a degree, what Bracewell did for British pop (in both senses) in the 60s and 70s with Remake/Remodel, the exhibition he has curated for Mayfair’s Sprüth Magers gallery sets out to continue into the 80s and 90s. The mutually fascinated gaze enjoyed by fine artists and musicians in this era is signalled from the moment you enter the gallery’s reception area by a large black and white portrait of a teenage Sarah Lucas, sixteen years-old with wide, kohl-rimmed eyes, clutching a copy of the NME.

A decade after that photograph was taken, Lucas would participate in the show Freeze with fellow Goldsmith alumni Damien Hirst, Gary Lucas, and Angus Fairhurst, setting the template for a decade in which these ‘Young British Artists’ would collectively remake and remodel the public image of what an artist is and does, using the mass media – its archetypal imagery as well as its characteristic forms and conduits – as both a source of inspiration and a means of propagandising for their work. But in this particular image, Lucas looks oddly furtive, as if caught in the act and about to start lying defensively.

Gary Hume, Me as King Cnut (1983) Video 1:17. © Gary Hume / DACS London 2019. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

The NME – along with, though to a lesser extent, other mass market music weeklies like Melody Maker and Sounds – was, of course, for the 1980s a conduit as significant in some respects as art school was for the 1960s through which avant-garde ideas smuggled themselves into the popular consciousness. The writing of Paul Morley and Ian Penman, in particular, acting just like “points” in a “configuration” of ideas, interests, and institutions that would shape the “applied arts” of their era. But if there remained that shared look of mutual interest between art and pop in the 80s and 90s, one gets the distinct impression that something had irrevocably shifted. The winds had changed and somehow the balance of power was not quite what it once was.

When Richard Hamilton wrote his famous paean to pop in an oft-quoted letter to the architects Alison and Peter Smithson from 1957, one still gets a slight sense that he was slumming it a bit, that there remained in the artist’s curiosity something almost ethnographic. At the same time, a newly minted rock aristocracy looked to the art world as a source of legitimation, its pioneering critics (at Rolling Stone, Creem, and so forth) lifted their vocabulary from the tenets of romantic aesthetics. By the 80s and 90s, this is no longer the case. Now flush with money – real money, Wall Street money – and the proud gait of an industry capable of building its own damn museums, the pop business no longer needed legitimation from anybody – least of all the art world. But perhaps, in some small way, the art world still had need of pop.

Peter Saville, Blue Monday (1983) © Peter Saville. Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition here opens with four videos shown on historically appropriate cathode ray TVs, all made by the YBAs in their mid-90s pomp. Angus Fairhurst’s A Cheap and Ill-Fitting Gorilla Suit does Bruce Nauman by way of the Banana Splits, leaping up and down in a grey warehouse space dressed in the increasingly threadbare costume of the title. Its a vaudeville take on conceptual art, like Harpo Marx playing Henry Cowell.

Elsewhere, Fairhurst and Damien Hirst sit in a pub smoking fags in full clown get-up and Gary Hume, in a Burger King crown and a zip-up fleece, smokes more fags in an overflowing bath down an East End alley, pondering whether ‘King Cnut’ was really just an “arrogant idiot” or was he “trying to show that you can’t stop the tide”? Hume appears, himself, resigned – stoic even, in his tub – to the approach of history’s oncoming tide.

In the basement, you can find Gillian Wearing getting side-eyed by harried shoppers as she dances with hippy abandon before a fixed camera under the arcades of Peckham’s Aylesham Centre to the just barely audible muzak. An exercise less in making visible than making audible, of insistently listening to music one isn’t really supposed to listen to.

Installation view, 'New Order: Art, Product, Image 1976 – 1995, Sprüth Magers, London, July 24– September 14, 2019. Photography: Voytek Ketz, London

Meanwhile, upstairs Hamilton’s high tech spin on Duchamp’s readymades, the oblong grey monolith of a Diab DS-101 computer that probably seemed ominously futuristic in 1983, faces off against Hirst’s Satellite (1989–2010), an immaculately arranged cabinet of Solpadeines, Amitriptylines, Ofloxacin, and Morphine Oral Solution, each packet a study in crisp, modernist design. A kind of anxious monument to human mortality.

Between the two, an imperious umpire, sits Peter Saville’s floppy disk-like ‘Blue Monday’ sleeve, complete with its notoriously expensive die-cut étrécissements, and its frank nods both to art history (Malevich, Hamilton himself) and the new hybrid of high tech and pop culture even then only just emerging from the palm-lined streets of Silicon Valley, stands proudly vertical in its own vitrine and waist-high pedestal.

In some ways, the vaunted status of Saville’s cover design, more or less a dance 12” not that much different to any other, and yet far more confident, more instantly recognisable, and more eminently respectable than any of the other work here, tells Bracewell’s story about the 80s and 90s on its own. When even the punks had taken on an aristocratic mien (as we can see from Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon’s vivid photographs on the first floor), it was now artists who played at being snot-nosed brats. They did so consummately.

New Order: Art, Product, Image 1976–1995 is at Sprüth Magers, London, until 14 September