Thursday, 24 October 2013

A Choice of Catastrophe: Tacita Dean's JG and Hari Kunzru's Memory Palace

There have been two alternative post-catastrophe worlds on view in London galleries of late, both involving collaborations between writers and visual artists. Tacita Dean’s JG, inspired by the works of JG Ballard, was on show in the Soho Frith Street Gallery (confusingly not in Frith Street itself, which became apparent after a fruitless stroll along its length). Once found, in the wonderful 17th/18th century environs of Golden Square, it offered a rather imposing façade, with a front entrance seemingly designed to give the impression that the gallery was closed, as if to put off the uncommitted visitor. The basement bunker would have been a fittingly Ballardian place to project the film, with its achingly cool exposed concrete, but it was in fact shown in the street level gallery, just to the side of the busy office space. Memory Palace at the V&A was a visual realisation of a science fiction story written by Hari Kunzru, set in a de-technologised future in which a new form of fundamentalism has become dominant. It took place in a specially partitioned off area whose darkened spaces with their high dividing walls were designed to usher the visitor into this newly created world, shutting them off from the familiar one beyond.

Tacita Dean’s meditative film JG has its origins in her correspondence with JG Ballard, and particularly with their mutual fascination with Robert Smithson’s renowned work of land art Spiral Jetty. The film acts both as a reflection on Ballard’s work and as a personal valediction for her friend. It depicts a Ballardian landscape of rich desolation, a surrealist plane onto which significant objects can be placed or into which geometrical patterns can be carved. Both carry meanings which communicate directly with the subconscious. Dean uses digital superimposition and split screen techniques to achieve the effects which Ballard and his beloved surrealists created through prose, paint and various forms of collage. She found the perfect landscapes in Death Valley, Great Salt Lake, Utah, Monolake, California and other places in the US. Signs of human habitation are few and far between. We see industrial machinery, slow-moving trucks and trains on the horizon or a worksite hut with a light on suggesting recent habitation. But there are no actual human figures. Salt deposits, dessicated and rock-strewn vistas, milky rivulets and lakes tinted an unnaturally royal blue by mining deposits suggest the transformed planets of The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World and Vermilion Sands. Swollen sunsets hanging above crumbling cliffs beyond the edge of the lake are suggestive of The Terminal Beach and other stories in which entropic scenery anticipates the winding down of time and human consciousness.

There are brief readings by Jim Broadbent (chosen for his initials?) from two early Ballard stories, The Voices of Time and Prisoner of the Coral Deep. They are sparse and spaced widely apart, reflecting the primacy of landscape (be it inner or outer) over dialogue and character in Ballard’s work. Both stories involve an altered temporal perspective – an entropic winding down of the evolutionary process in The Voices of Time and a shift into geological scale in Prisoner of the Coral Deep, which takes place on the Dorset shore. The image of the spiral is a recurrent one in Dean’s film, superimposed over water or rock. It makes reference both to the fossilised shell which acts as a trigger for the interior timeslip in Prisoner of the Coral Deep, and to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Ballard wrote about this work, which fascinated him so, in his essay Robert Smithson as Cargo Cultist from 1997 (unfortunately just too late to be included in his essay collection A User’s Guide to the Millenium). Smithson’s rock spiral, extending out into Salt Lake in Utah, was deliberately constructed at a site in which the waters stilled within its coils would be turned red by algae, contrasting with the vividly unreal colours surrounding it, the legacy of effluent from the abandoned industrial plant. Robert Hughes writes about it in American Visions, his history of American art. He notes how ‘Smithson had been preoccupied with entropy’, and that his ‘imagination had a strong component of the higher sort of science fiction, such as the apocalyptic, time-drenched landscapes of JG Ballard, whom the artist read avidly and admired’. The admiration was mutual. In his brief essay, Ballard hitched Smithson’s works to his own perennial concerns. He wonders ‘what cargo might have berthed at Spiral Jetty’ and imagines a ‘craft captained by a rare captain, a minotaur obsessed by inexplicable geometries’. He suggests that ‘his structures seem to be analogues of advanced neurological processes that have yet to articulate themselves’ and that ‘his monuments… (are) the ground plans of heroic psychological edifices that will one day erect themselves and whose shadows we can already see from the corners of our eyes’. The jetty has long since been washed away by the geological and tidal forces of erosion. It was always intended to be a piece which lasted little longer than a handful of years, offering a condensed vision of the processes of deep time. Dean resurrects its spirit in the place where it was briefly a curious feature of the landscape, a mystery which Ballard suggested she might try to solve.

Robert Smithson - Spiral Jetty
The colouring of the pools in Dean’s film by mineral extraction and the outflow of industrial processes echo this transformation of the environment by a mixture of human and natural agency. We also see a digger at the start of the film scooping out geometrical channels in the rocky desert plain. This relates both to Smithson’s extraction of materials for his spiral, and to the compulsion which drives Ballard’s characters to make patterns, abstract markings in the landscape which express some interior symbology. In The Voices of Time, the protagonist expends some of the last of his dwindling energy on customising the concrete bunkers, towers and targets of an abandoned Air Force weapons range into a monolithic mandala in which he can take his own insignificant place. Another character carves patterns in the floor of an empty swimming pool ‘to form an elaborate ideogram like a Chinese character’. The empty swimming pool is another favourite Ballard image, which his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun suggests may derive from childhood memories. The blue rectangles of water superimposed on desert and lake backdrops can be seen as Dean’s recognition and adoption of this motif. The spiral is sometimes set against geometrical landscapes, curling, natural forms contrasting with the rectilinear patterns of human design. It also depicts a journey inward or outward, furling or unfurling, It connects the inner to the outer landscape, the body of water to the land, and also hints at a nonlinear or vastly expanded view of time. The film’s narrative quotes from Prisoner of the Coral Deep, the protagonist of which contemplates a fossilised shell and comments ‘if only one could unwind this spiral it would probably play back to us a picture of all the landscapes it’s ever seen’. It would be like an unspooling reel of mineral film.

This is one reason why Dean makes the film strip visible in several scenes, giving it a sense of non-digital materiality, of time unwinding as a reel of film does. And, of course, a film can be rewound onto its spool, time stored in readiness for another cycle. The visibility of the film strip also alludes to the watchers and observers, directors and conductors present in many of Ballard’s stories. Their presence beyond the frame is also hinted at by the occasional click of a shutter or whir of running film. Gurus and psychopaths are often on hand to guide the protagonist along inward paths, helping him (and it is always him) to find his true place at the heart of the catastrophe, or to realise his own unique psychopathology to its fullest extent. The screen is split at times, images competing for our attention, forcing us to splice our own coherent pictures together. This makes us aware of their mediated nature, and points to the media landscape which was increasingly central in Ballard’s late 60s work. The split screen and sudden edits also create something of the feel of the fractured narratives in his ‘condensed novels’ of this period, many of which were collected together in The Atrocity Exhibition. Creatures making scurrying or scuttling appearances make further reference to the two source stories. A lizard alludes to the transformation of the siren of geological time at the end of Prisoners of the Coral Deep: ‘on the ledge where she had stood a large lizard watched me with empty eyes’. An armadillo, meanwhile, stands in for the desert animals in The Voices of Time who are mutating in anticipation of a steady increase in solar radiation, growing hardened, lead-lined shells. Dean’s film has a dreamlike quality all of its own, but also acts as a carefully and lovingly compiled compendium of Ballard’s themes and concerns – his grand, intoxicating obsessions.

The Memory Palace exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum derived from a new story by Hari Kunzru. He has created an post-catastrophe science fiction world whose key attributes, both in terms of significant differences from our time and of a future historiography which recasts the present, with ironic or satirical effect, are outlined under clearly delineated headings – proper verb nouns which make the newness of an invented reality readily and swiftly comprehensible. This is often a fault of non-genre authors attempting to write SF or fantasy who take an overly schematic approach which leaves the plans to their thinly constructed worlds plainly visible. Kunzru is no literary arriviste on genre terrain, however. He first came to my attention through an interview he conducted with Michael Moorcock for The Guardian some time ago, in which he revealed his youthful love of New Worlds and the new wave SF of the 60s and 70s. This was a prime period for post-apocalyptic scenarios, which ranged from Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains and Samuel Delany’s city-based Dhalgren through to some of Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories, Keith Roberts’ dark pastorals The Chalk Giants and Pavane; from JG Ballard’s inner landscapes, cleared of all the inessential clutter of civilisation to M.John Harrison’s savage The Committed Men and John Crowley’s bucolic Engine Summer. The latter provides an interesting contrast with Kunzru’s world in that it is set in a post-literate and post-technological but essentially peaceful and civilised future; a future in which our present is a barely remembered dream. Kunzru reverses the ecotopian trend of the 70s (also to be found in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time) and presents a green theocracy as a new inquisitorial force of oppression and tyranny in a post-disaster world long stripped of its former technologies.

The schematic outlining of the future world works in the context of the exhibition. Its basic contours need to be clearly and concisely presented in a few easily absorbed phrases. Familiarity with the accompanying story certainly cannot be assumed (I hadn’t read it, for a start). Thus, three ages are swiftly laid out: The Booming, which is our time of globalised capital and lightning communications; The Withering, the period of chaos and collapse in which the story is set; and The Wilding, the deep green future envisaged and worked towards by the ecotopian council known as The Thing in which humanity will diminish and become absorbed into the natural order once more. This will involve a surrender of all knowledge harboured from the time before the Magnetisation, the name for the devastating magnetic storms which brought our technological era to an end. Reading, writing or any form of representation or recording of the world, past, present or future, is outlawed. The Thing wish to create a post-literate world in which humanity returns with dumb humility to take its place in the recrudescent wilderness. But there is opposition.

The protagonist whose progress we follow around the various points of the exhibition space, and through whose perspective we piece together a picture of the world, is one of a rebel band of intellectuals who defy this retreat from civilisation by reviving the old idea of the memory palace. This can be used to create and foster libraries of knowledge within the seemingly unassailable spaces of the mind. The memory palace was a system for remembering facts and ideas by building up a mental architecture, perhaps replicating a well-known building from the external world. Each brick or window or piece of furniture would be associated with a particular node of knowledge, and all would be carefully arranged in categorical order. John Crowley depicts the use of such a system by the Renaissance scholar, scientist and philosopher Giordano Bruno in the 16th century. It leads to his persecution and eventual execution by Inquisitorial forces. Kunzru’s narrator follows a similar path, the knowledge accumulated and stored within his interior architecture a challenge to a different idea of divine order, and by extension of the authority of the priestly hierarchy which propounds it. Our narrator is arrested and imprisoned from the outset of the story. We see his pentangular cell (made here by artists Frank Laws) and peer through the gaps in its walls to the confined space which he expands into his own memory palace. A meagre mental canvas whose every crack and splinter he makes use of. We glimpse some of the pictures which he has begun to project on the dismal, dimly lit brickwork of his prison.

The exhibition space itself was constructed around the idea of the memory palace, with ghost outlines of arching rooftops and windows rising above the partition walls. There was also a kind of junk memory palace in the far corner of the last ‘room’, a church-like bunker built from baled-up breezeblocks of recycled papers. This is a construct of unfiltered information, a conglomerated mass of newsnoise in which anything of value gets drowned out in the undifferentiated torrent.

One of the great pleasures of post-apocalyptic stories is seeing or reading about familiar buildings or monuments which have been transformed in some way. Either they have fallen into ruin or they have been used for some purpose utterly at odds with their original function. The Statue of Liberty was always the most popular choice to mark the fall of us all, so much so that magazine covers depicting it half submerged by a great deluge, with shattered crown or lying toppled on its side became something of a cliché. In this exhibition, it is London landmarks which are subject to picturesque ruin and the invasion of the London cityscape by a resurgent wilderness. Nemo Tral’s lightbox prints present these scenes as sacred stained glass images, the new religious order celebrating the disintegration of the steel and glass monuments of the old metropolitan age. Further images of the city overrun are presented in Isabel Greenberg’s digital prints which, like the stained glass, resemble black and white comic book illustrations. The Shard is shattered (hooray), vines entwine the trunk of the Post Office Tower and enmesh St Pancras station, shanty towns cluster in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium and the Barbican flats and walkways rise above a central lake.

A museum cabinet by Abäke contains semi-abstract objects of transparent Perspex which seem to have been denuded of meaning and are on the verge of dematerialisation. It’s reminiscent of the abandoned museum the traveller in HG Wells’ The Time Machine comes across in the future, whose exhibits are all dusty and disintegrating through the neglect of centuries by the intellectually enfeebled Eloi. A later sculpture, which resembles a 3D comic image in boldly outlined black and white, allows us a close-up look at a NHS wagon. Drawn by four foxes, it looks more like a funerary hearse. The stacked up boxes and bottles of snake oils and quack cures on offer, all with voodoo brands offering instant salvation, betoken a retreat from empirical rationalism into magical thinking. Any idea of universal care has long been abandoned, and the NHS letters are nothing more than a totemistic remnant from the past. This is Death’s wagon, spreading the plagues it loudly claims to ward off. It was made by Le Gun – hmm, just an ‘i’ off from Ursula K.

Henning Wagenbreth builds up his view of the old metropolis from brightly coloured wooden blocks. It’s a childlike construct incorporating distinctly unchildlike subject matter. It suggests both a simplified view of the past and a technological tower of Babel which is all too easy to sweep aside into a rubbled heap. Several walls are covered with comic strip panels in austere black and white, resembling Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (as originally published in monochrome in Warrior) and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. These told the story of our narrator’s arrest, trial and interrogation, during which he comes face to face (or hood) with his own version of Winston Smith’s O’Brien. The Inquisitorial figures which confront him look like something out of Goya’s Los Caprichos adapted for a British mythos. Perhaps the most impressive work in the display was Jim Kay’s sculpture, a hybrid of altarpiece and museum cabinet of curiosities. The two doors opening out from this wooden cabinet formed a diptych, the first panel depicting the violent collapse of civilisation and the second the post-apocalyptic world. A small drawer, pulled out in front, contained a variety of simple objects sorted into tiny individual trays, the humble beginnings of a curatorial mindset. The centre of the altarpiece was taken by a branching tree of gold, upon which tokens with images of birds were dangled. The difference in the shapes of their beaks made this a sacred tree of diverging evolutionary variation. It alluded to Darwin’s observations of the variations in the beaks of finches made on his world travels which contributed to the formulation of his evolutionary theories of natural selection. Hung on golden boughs, they have become symbols of a new worldview which is more in tune with Charles Frazer’s survey of primitive mythological beliefs than with The Origin of the Species. On the top of it all perches a large crow, a death’s head token held in its beak.

Not everything here worked, but the central idea of artworks bringing an extra dimension to a story was a good one, ripe for further exploration. At the end (and stop now if you intend reading Kunzru’s story) our narrator’s life fades away. But before he dies, he is contacted by the resistance, who speak to him through a tiny crack in his cell wall. They tell him that he can leave one sentence behind for them to take out into the world – one brick from his memory palace. The final panels fade to black. No matter how elaborately constructed, the memory palace fades into nothingness once the mind which has so painstakingly planned and built it ceases to exist. This exhibition memorialises one such imaginary palace with its various works, and thereby points to the way in which art can immortalise aspects of an individual’s unique consciousness, their particular way of seeing the world. At the end, the blank panels morph into a series filled with messages, doodleboards onto which the visitor has been encouraged to add a memory precious to them. The present, with all its Babel of voices, its obsession with constant communication and occult finance, is ultimately seen as a time in which there is still much joy and happiness. This is one of the lessons of the post-apocalyptic tale. We see the seeds of its creation in our own world, but it also makes look at what’s good in that world, what we would miss if it was gone. At the heart of the imagined catastrophe lies an utopian urge.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Finch and the Ambergris Stories by Jeff Vandermeer

I’ve just finished reading Finch, seemingly the last of Jeff Vandermeer’s stories set in the ornate, decadent and grotesquely fecund city of Ambergris – for the time being, anyway. Rather than a jewelled city, Ambergris is a fungal and foetid one, its hidden subterraenean race of mycological beings increasingly permeating its inhabitants and architecture with spores which bloom into new exotic and weird forms. We were first introduced to this fantastic locale in City of Saints and Madmen, a collection whose stories were presented in the form of histories with extensive and eccentrically discursive footnotes, opinionated biographies, cultural and biological monographs, tales published in Ambergisian magazines (the Burning Leaves journal in this case), souvenir booklets (‘in celebration of the 300th Festival of the Freshwater Squid), art reviews, medical reports and a final glossary and appendix on imaginary fonts.

In these varied pieces we learn about the foundation of the city by Cappan John Manzikert, the ‘whaler-cum-pirate’; hear of the original gray cap inhabitants, the mysterious fungal race who are driven below ground, their city of Cinsorium razed to the ground; and of their establishment of a labyrinthine city beneath the city, from which they make ghostly forays aboveground. We learn of the terrible catastrophe known as The Silence in which 25,000 people disappear without trace due to some inexplicable metaphysical machination on the part of the gray caps. We find out about the intelligent freshwater squid, the myths which surround it and the annual festival which celebrates its cultural importance. We discover something of the Truffidian religion, and read about its most famous proponent, the monk Samuel Tonsure, who disappears in the underground realms of the gray caps, leaving behind a journal filled with tantalizing descriptions of their alien world. We also meet various of the artistic personalities who crowd the Albumuth Boulevard, generally engaging in fierce and occasionally murderous factional disputes: the legendary opera composer Voss Bender (who gives his name to the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute), the painter Martin Lake and the writer Nicholas Sporlender.

The atmosphere of florid excess and incipient decay or collapse links Ambergris with the decadent fin de siecle literature of Yellow Book pages and French symbolists, and with the M.John Harrison’s Viriconium stories, which draw on similar sources. This air of elaborate exoticism and self-consciously extravagant gesture is reflected in the wonderful names to be found throughout City of Saints and Madmen. We come across the art collector Maxwell Bibble, Dvorak Niebelung the poisonous dwarf (distant cousins to M.John Harrison’s gleefully violent and vulgar dwarves Tomb, the Grand Cairo, Rotgob and the clown Kiss-O-Suck, themselves derived from Aubrey Beardsley's twisted homonculi), the inventor Stephen Bacilus, Richard Krokus and Maxwell Glaring, and the artist Roger Mandible. The change in the nature of the city which has come about by the time of Finch, the post-decadent period of occupation and destitution after the deluge has come (literally in certain quarters) is evident in the truncation of these extravagant names into monosyllabic mumbles. In this bleak and defeated city, the characters now have names like our eponymous anti-hero, his partner Wyte, the criminal spy Stark and his goon Bosun.

Books, publishing, writing and reading are central concerns throughout the series. The rival publishing houses Hoegbotten and Frankwrithe & Lewden are a dominant force in the city, and eventually wage full scale war against each other (the so-called War of the Houses). One of the grandest buildings Manzikert and his crew come across in their initial exploration of the gray cap city is the old library, and it is here that the conflagration which destroys Cinsorium is started. The Borges Bookshop, central to the literary life of Ambergris, acknowledges one abiding influence upon the self-reflective concern with books and writing and the bibliographical play within the stories. The Strange Case of X nods to another influence – turn the X into a K and Kafka appears. He’s an inspiration in terms of his fiction and of his writing life, as revealed in his letters. In the X story, a writer who is the subject of a psychiatric report imagines that he is the creator of the popular fictional city of Ambergris. It is of course our world which turns out to be the improbable fantasy, the product of an overheated imagination. Or perhaps both worlds are equally unreal, the whole notion of the real provisional and illusory. There is an uncanny feeling in all of the books of characters being written, taking on roles created for them which are always subject to revision (or editing out), and of these characters being, on some level, aware of this discomfiting sense of invisible control.

All of the stories following on from The Strange Case of X are presented as papers and effects which the anonymous patient has gathered together and perhaps authored. Learning to Leave the Flesh is all about the transformative power of writing, and is permeated with a dizzying reflection on its own composition, of the unfolding process of its writing and revision occurring independently of any authorial control. In The Release of Belacqua, the actor is doomed endlessly to repeat the role with which he becomes indelibly associated until there is no separation between the authentic individual and the written character. The Man Who Had No Eyes includes a premonition of future catastrophe in which the gray caps have taken over the city once more, a vision which has come to pass by the time of Finch. The second book, Shriek, takes the form of a confessional celebrity autobiography written by the art collector Janice Shriek. Her failed attempt to erase herself through suicide, she symbolically does so in telling the story of her own life. She ends up writing more about her brother Duncan, an adventurer and iconoclastic historian. She doesn’t even have the last word in her own book. It contains regular intercessions by Duncan made after her disappearance (and prior to his), correcting her versions of events and adding a sardonic second authorial voice which makes the narrative doubly untrustworthy. In Finch, characters have multiple aliases, and Finch himself turns out to have concealed personas (concealed even from himself) over which his current self has been written. The personalities of the recently dead can be imposed on the living through the consumption of fungal memory bulbs which fruit on the deceased body. These can take a person over, rewriting and revising a particular character. Finch’s main source of information for the cases he works on (he’s a policeman) is a self-appointed librarian called Rebecca Rathven. She is the custodian of the books she has gathered together from all over the city and filed away in her flooded rooms in the basement of Finch’s building. It’s a sunken library of the subconscious, a passage towards the rear leading off into unknown darkness. We get to travel down it towards the end of the novel). So Vandermeer’s tales of Ambergris begin with one damaged library, and end with another.

Finch follows the trend of casting each new story in a different literary form. This one is the hardboiled detective novel or police thriller, ‘fungal noir’ as Richard K Morgan memorably coins it in his back cover blurb. All the elements of noir are here: the battered, world weary but at heart noble investigator (Finch, whose father was called John Marlowe Crossley, underlining his literary heritage); the chaotic world in which the moral order is not so easy to classify; the blurred distinction between criminals and authorities; the femme fatale who comes into the detective’s life but remains independent and inscrutable (Sintra, who drifts in and out of his flat, never staying long enough for any lasting intimacy to develop); the loyal female companion who is always there to tend the wounds of regular beatings; and the partner to whom our hero is unswervingly loyal, even when he gets into trouble or falls into temptation. This is Wyte, who runs into a trap in the course of a former case and becomes infected with the spores from a dead man. He manages to dispel the invading personality from his mind, but the fungi spread through his body, flushing his skin with patches of purple and green and gradually transforming him into something other than human. He has become what is known as a Partial, a detested breed who are halfway between states and considered inherently untrustworthy by those people who remain unaffected. There is also the unsympathetic boss, in this case the gray cap Finch knows as Heretic, his lazy approximation of the name he can’t be bothered to learn. And there is his cat, Feral, which he continues to worryabout no matter how desperate his own situation becomes. This is reminiscent of Elliott Gould’s dishevelled 70s Marlowe in Robert Altman’s film version of The Long Goodbye. The language of the novel is clipped, sentences short and often lacking definite or indefinite articles or personal pronouns. Everything is held in, kept close and secret. It’s the repressed, enervated language of defeat and paranoia.

The Ambergris of Finch is wholly transformed from the city whose rich culture we enjoyed discovering in the earlier stories. This is a city of occupation, the gray caps having risen and imposed their authority on those who survived their terrible onslaught. Red mushroom trees sprout from the streets and dispense narcotising drugs to keep the populace quietly addicted. There are work camps set up on islands in the delta towards the outskirts of the city, and the debris of war is left scattered throughout the ruins, gradually rusting as it is covered with fungal growths. Finch observes ‘the petrified snout of a tank or two. Ripped up at treads. Collapsed train cars pitted with scars and holes’. It’s reminiscent of the marooned relics of the outside world found in the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker.

Finch is investigating a locked room case involving the bodies of a man and a gray cap, the latter cut in two, and both of whom seem to have fallen from a great height. As the case progresses, he becomes more and more mired in the politics and metaphysics of the occupation. He comes across criminal overlords, assured in their grip over the city; rebel groups and Partial quislings, both ruthless in pursuing their ends; and he even has an encounter with the legendary Lady in Blue, the semi-mythical symbol of the resistance which disappeared into what has come to be known as the Hoegbotten and Frankwrithe Zone many years ago. As the novel develops, noirish elements shade into metaphysical horror of a Lovecraftian variety. Reality begins to disintegrate and become malleable. Finch falls out of the world for a while and is taken to other dimensions. All seem to converge on the ‘ruined fortress of Zamilon’, which proves to be a nexus of doorways to other realities (‘it exists in our world, but it also exists in many other worlds simultaneously’). The two adjoining towers which the gray are building by the side of the delta on the edge of the city seem to have a similar purpose, forming a flickering gateway to many elsewheres. The sense of metaphysical horror, of reality being pulled out of shape, is embodied by the skery, the terrifying creature which, in true Lovecraftian style, cannot be adequately described in terms which the human mind can encompass. The gray caps use them (and possibly create them) as enforcers, monstrous bulldogs of sorts. Its maw offers Finch ‘an image of an endless field of dim stars, one by one extinguished’. A vision of an all-engulfing void far worse than death.

If the gray caps new edifices sound like it an allusion to the twin towers, it’s almost certainly intentional. Echoes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and occupations abound. Finch finds a fragment of a note in the dead man’s hand at the start of the novel, with the words ‘Bellum omnium contra omnes’ written on it. He doesn’t understand it because it’s not in a language which exists in his world. It’s a Latin phrase meaning the war of all against all. From the start there are hints at links between the worlds, which had already been alluded to in The Strange Case of X. In M.John Harrison’s Viriconium books there are also connections between the fantastic and the real. In In Viriconium, the boozily boorish gods of the city, the Barley Brothers, make reference to having been thrown out of Birmingham and Woverhampton, whilst in the short story A Young Man’s Guide to Viriconium, several desperate dreamers attempt to make the passage from the real into the imagined, all to disastrous effect.

The parallels with occupations in the recent history of our world become increasingly explicit as the story moves towards its climax. Finch undergoes drawn out torture in an ‘unofficial’ interrogation by a Partial, one of the gray caps’ native collaborators. We also learn that the face of Finch’s father, who achieved notoriety as a supposedly traitorous double agent during the Wars of the Houses, was one of those printed on a deck of playing cards depicting the Most Wanted in the wake of the conflict. The police station is blown up by a suicide bomber, the likes of which were regularly used by the rebels in the early days of the occupation. The fortress of Zamilon where armies from divergent realities face each other is located in a desert landscape, the remains of a shattered oriental fantasy out of the Arabian Nights. The forces gathered on the plain are described in terms of unutterable otherness, things whose physical difference betokens a mentality which can never be comprehended or understood. Finch glimpses ‘furtive movement out there. Occluding the fires at times. A suggestion of long, wide limbs. Of misshapen heads’. Our reality may be one of the others connecting with this nexus, or perhaps one of the landscapes which flicker across the scenes shimmering between the towers. These towers are described as if they were alive, an organic machine akin to the one which Duncan Shriek had come across underground. They were ‘in mottled green, with darker blues writhing through’ and ‘seemed to flutter and be alive. Portions like lungs. Breathing.’

Some of the mysteries raised in earlier stories are given answers, although they tend to be open-ended, leading to further and more fundamental questions about the nature of things. We re-encounter characters from previous books in one form or another. Duncan Shriek and Samuel Tonsure reappear. Finch even voices a bit of literary criticism in his mind regarding Shriek, a copy of which he is lent by Rathven. He reflects that ‘he found Janice an exasperating narrator. She hid things, lied, delayed the truth’. It’s as if he regards her as a recalcitrant witness in his case. We also hear again of the monstrous metaphysical mechanism, a vast machine incorporating living beings as components, which Duncan Shriek had described, and which he speculated had been the accidental cause of the mass disappearances of The Silence. A faulty connection or sudden power surge accidentally deflecting a more long-term and permanent project. This may finally be reaching its end with the completion of the towers.

Finch ends up bruised and bloodied but alive, a small man caught between opposing forces who would both manipulate him and use him to further their own ends. Like Philip Marlowe in the Raymond Chandler novels, he tries to behave honourably in a world in which the moral order has become impossibly convoluted. His ability to act according to his own will is severely limited as he is caught up in the tidal sweep of historical circumstance and a metaphysical shift the nature of which he can barely comprehend. His role is ultimately summed up by the fungally encoded and replicated spirit of Duncan Shriek, who tells him ‘you’re a man who did the best he could in impossible circumstances. That’s all’. It defines the limits of heroism in this tough-minded fantasy.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The HIVE Art Group at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter

The main art gallery in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter has followed up its Gillian Wearing exhibition with a show featuring three artists whose names you’re less likely to be familiar with. Together they form the group known as HIVE, which won a competition run jointly with the local newspaper the Express and Echo. Readers voted for their favourite amongst a shortlist selected from submissions made by groups in the Exeter area. Ian Harbour was the Hive member elected to give some introductory comments at the opening. He made reference to Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures and the light they shed on the machinations of the Art Establishment and the way it sets out to determine taste and what is presented to the public as significant Art (Art capitalised in more ways than one). Ian professed to being a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut, which brought his novel Breakfast of Champions to mind. This book includes a character called Rabo Karabekian, a minimalist artist who has just sold a painting to a provincial museum for $50,000 (bear in mind this is a novel first published in 1973). His painting, entitled The Temptation of St Anthony, is field of commercially produced wall paint (‘Hawaiian Avocado’) with a vertical strip of orange reflecting tape to one side. Vonnegut, who appears as a godlike authorial presence in a diner where everyone gathers, comments ‘I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid’. However, the artist’s explanation that the day-glo strip represents an individual life as a column of light proves a revelation to the depressed author.

Ian also pointed to the Art Everywhere project, which saw works of art in British collections selected by the public appear as posters alongside the usual chaos of advertising signs, as a false example of the democratisation of taste. The range from which people were allowed to choose was preselected and fairly rigidly defined, following a familiar narrative path through the story of British art. Would there really be such a significant representation of the work of the Young British Artists if this were really a popular choice, he asked? (As an aside, I’m now frustrated that I didn’t come across some of my favourites from this selection – Paul Nash’s Landscape of the Vernal Equinox; Samuel Palmer’s In A Shoreham Garden; Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke; and in particular, Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, whose surrealistic dream corridor would have appeared even more disconcertingly strange when happened upon in a bus shelter. I did see the paintings by Edward Burra and Michael Craig-Martin, Lucian Freud’s Girl With A Kitten – he had two pictures selected, as did Peter Blake – Henry Raeburn’s ice-skating reverend and Barbara Hepworth’s shell-like wooden Pelagos sculpture). However, through this RAMM and Express and Echo competition, he suggested, a real democratic exercise of public taste had been permitted to determine what ended up on the walls. So, what does the public choose when given the chance?

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik - Dorothea Tanning
The three Hive artists are very diverse in terms of style and subject matter, but there is a certain shared sensibility (a Hive mind?) which gives their work a cohesive feel when collected together. Whimsy, a playful imagination, an eye for quirky and eccentric detail and a love of the mythic and fantastical run through pictures which are otherwise utterly unalike.

The Green Queen and her Bird - Su Scotting
Su Scotting’s work is the most wide-ranging in terms of media, encompassing linocut prints and acrylics, watercolours, and drawings in various shades of ink and pencil. Her subject matter tends towards the Totnesian, a green and new age anthology of the sacred, mythic and folkloric bringing together shamen and fools, hares and foxes, reindeers and unicorns, Buddhas and angels. Her glowing, honey-coloured acrylic painting If the Bee Man’s Hive Thrives, He Thrives provides a symbolic signature for the group. A stylised figure of a man presides over the busy creative hub of his apiary, the trails of bees spinning woozy spirals around him. Some of Su’s paintings form complementary series. Four Seasonal Angels leaves its female figure eternal and unchanging in essence, but rings the changes in the turning colours of leaves and blossoms which make up her hair and clothes, and blushes and dims the bloom on her cheeks. A lino-cut Cherry Blossom Buddha is another seasonal marker from the other side of the world, imprinted in red outlines. The Green Queen and Her Bird and The Blue Prince and His Hare, with their stylised side-on figures, animal familiars and surrounding decorative symbols could be twinned Tarot cards, opposites which suggest a state of completion and wholeness when brought together. God Yul and Peace are colourful folk art Christmas messages (which would make great cards) with a Swedish and Russian flavour. The Russian scene balances an onion domed building on its snowy hillside curve, and surrounds it with more fantastical towers – a wintry Russia of the fairytale imagination.

Other pictures adapt the styles of painters and traditions of which Su is evidently fond, and which she uses for her own ends. On My Way and Dancing In My Garden both employ the vivid colours and iconography of Mughal Indian miniature paintings and wall hangings to depict women in Edenic landscapes. They’re shown side-on, with huge almond-shaped eyes, wide open, alert and fully alive to the moment.

St Ives - Su Scotting
A St Ives linocut distills the town into a representative cluster of buildings as seen through a wide-angled lens, the harbour wall flattened into curving arms extending out into the sea, and waves reduced to frilly parallel lines. It summons up the essence of the town in a few economic gestures. Su seems to have been imbued with the spirit of the ‘naïve’ St Ives artist and fisherman Alfred Wallis. This is also evident in On the Island, I Am Safe in the Rain’, with its outline fishing boat floating flatly on the sea, and its perspectiveless but protectively encircling harbour walls.

I particularly like her pictures made with white pencil on black card. The contrast is very effective, and is eminently suitable for nocturnal, ethereal or uncanny scenes. There’s an owl in the snow before a backdrop of softly blurred stars; a boobyish bird extending ungainly wings which will never launch it into flight; a friendly zig-zag monster set amongst a storm of swirls; and an emblematic reindeer at the edge of a stylised coniferous forest beneath a milky smudge of a moon. A simple pencil work called The Soul Goes Home is beautifully done. A semi-circular boat carrying a calmly recumbent figure is cradled with perfect congruity within the deep trough of flame-like waves. A sickle moon hangs above, echoing the curve of the hull.

Su also evokes the comforting familiarity of creative domestic spaces and the well-used objects which fill them. Alison’s Wobbly Kitchen is an outline sketch, the wavering lines suggesting an in the moment impression, maybe made whilst perched on a stool. This is also true of In the Greenhouse, which feels like a spontaneous sketch intended to capture a moment and the feeling which led to the impulse to record it.

Some of Sam Harrison’s pictures, mainly created with ink pens, also evoke this sense of familiar domestic spaces, comforting corners or favourite spots. Idiosyncratic details can bring an element of magic or the weird into these scenes, though. A drawing of a sofa in brown ink pays close attention to every rip and indentation, as if each has an inherent story to tell. It shows an intimate familiarity with the weathered topography of this characterfully beat piece of domestic furnishing. A bony set of antlers which seem to rise from the abyss at the back of the cushions where pennies, biros and combs disappear adds a slightly unsettling element of ritualism or supernatural manifestation to this site of easeful, lazy repose, however; the familiar and homely invaded and made strange. Stove in a Shed casts a sympathetic and attentive eye on a neglected and battered iron stove which, with its bandaged pipe, has the look of an aged but still-loved pet being cared for in its decrepitude. Continuing the theme of finding value and beauty in the seemingly obsolescent, A Serious Vinyl Addiction painstakingly delineates the closely stacked LPs, dvds and guitars which are the outward signs of someone’s musical passions, locating a distinctive personality within apparent chaos and disorder (although knowing the mentality of the record collector, those LPs will be filed according to a rigorous and rigidly adhered to system). The Old Cassette Player is another piece of obsolescent technology observed with care and affection, a loving portrait of a beat up boombox. Cassette boxes casually left lying on top are titled Loved Up and Hair Loss, old mix tapes whose contents we can only wonder at. Stars emerging from the speaker grille and sequins scattered on top combine with emphatic ‘Wows’ riding on crackling zigzags to add a bit of expressionistic pop art colour, conveying some of the pleasure that the music radiating from this old machine has given over the years.

Guildhall Door, Totnes (detail) - Sam Harrison
Sam also has a liking for objects, places and details of greater antiquity, and in particular for the strange folk art and medieval craftsmanship to be found in the south west. Guildhall Door, Totnes uses finely drawn in detailing to get into the weathered warp and rift of the medieval wood and the granitic grain of the arched frame, giving an impression of character incrementally inscribed over the centuries. C16 Door, Exeter zooms in on the lion’s head carved on the grand oak door to be found in the Cathedral Close, and once again we get the impression of the aged texture of timeworn wood, conveyed through subtle shading and an accumulation of wavering lines. Sam goes into the sacred stone groves of the chapel to find sculpted and carved creatures both quirkily characterful and disconcertingly strange in its chapels and naves. A mermaid drawn from a misericord triumphantly displays her catch, and her wooden form is given vivid life with bright watercolouring. A Bird Lady is another figure from the fecund Medieval imagination hidden under the choir seats, and Sam colours her into life too, turning her fish tail into a decorative weave of Saxon knotwork.

Drawn from the original - The cathedral mermaid misericord
Hugh’s Owl is drawn from one of many such creatures populating the chapel dedicated to Hugh Oldham, the Bishop of Exeter in the early 16th century. Sam, with her Lancastrian background, may well feel an affinity for him since he was born in a village which has long since been absorbed into the sprawl of Manchester. Her owl is given a softly stippled texture, lending the appearance of stone glowing in evening sunlight. It’s quite lovely. Another Owl for Hugh adds colour, giving it pale blue eyes, beak and claws and caramel feathers and setting it against a red background. It gives it back the vivid colouring most of the statues and carvings in the cathedral would have worn in their medieval heyday.
There’s a further owl painted in oils (an oil owl) on a small block of unframed canvas which looks like a squared off boss. A characterful portrait of someone called Dave Warren, a man with wild hair and a pleasantly lived-in face, is also painted in oils, a medium with which Sam is also evidently comfortable and adept, and is maybe looking to explore more extensively.

Hugh's Owl - Sam Harrison
The piece de resistance as far as her pen and ink work is concerned, however, is After A Portrait of Elizabeth Flaye, which carries the further explanatory inscription ‘by an unknown artist – possibly James Gandy c.1625-1630’. The original oil painting, whose subject was an Elizabethan businesswoman, can be found in the history galleries below. The drawing technique here is fine, relaxed and assured. Gentle stippling of the nose, mouth and eyes gives her face a soft and kindly look, whilst a combination of concentrated, compressed curves and subtle shading delineates the spread of ruff and the lacy puff of sleeve cuffs with great delicacy. The black dress is inked in with many carefully directed strokes which suggest the texture of the material and the way in which it hangs. Sam’s pictures may be smaller in number and size than those displayed by her Hive cohorts, but they’re no less impressive for all that, and make an impact out of all proportion to their modest scale.

Ian Harbour’s paintings are the ones which immediately grab the attention when you walk into the gallery, partly because of their eye-catching colour contrasts and boldly outlined shapes, and partly because a number of them are simply larger than anything else in the vicinity. A wall of miniatures form a prefatory bloc to the right of the entrance, introducing us to the alien landscapes, pink and purply blue shades and amorphous, microbial creatures which constitute his imaginary worlds. Flat bottomed sugar mice and pac man jellies indicate a strong element of playfulness and whimsy, but the elements in the paintings are carefully ordered, the amusing fantasies presented with formal rigour. A racing scene involving the aforementioned mice and some curiously unaerodynamic hovercraft (indicating a planet with low gravity and a thin atmosphere, perhaps?) set off along plane broken up by arcades which could come out of a de Chirico painting (if they weren’t pink, of course). Holes in the ground bring to mind the architectural collisions of crazy golf courses to mind, too.

Pink Planet also features a surrealist plane, this one populated by semi-abstract shapes reminiscent of Jean Arp and Yves Tanguy. Blue Dinosaur and Pink Balloons maroons a diplodocus which looks like it’s been fashioned by a balloon folder with a surrealist bent amongst the linear skyways of a futuristic metropolis. The Riddle has pink snakes sporting bizarre headgear emerging from their purple urn dens, pinwheel eyes making them look a little dazed. They’re adjacent to a hole opening onto blue depths and the wall of a maze above which the perky light-blue ears of a rabbit peek. Figure that one out.

City Limits - Philip Guston
The influence of Philip Guston is an abiding one, but comes through particularly in two ‘conehead’ paintings. Coneheads Rally and Coneheads Meet both bring Guston’s klansman pictures of the 70s to mind, odd works in which the hooded figures go about everyday tasks, maintaining a permanent anonymity, as if the masks have become their true identity. Ian’s coneheads are in fact cone bodies, white geometrical beings with beadily blinking eyes and furiously flapping arms which allow them to hover, as they do in the first painting. Despite their rallies and meetings, there are none of the sinister overtones of the Guston paintings, with their sense that deep rooted hatreds lie close beneath the surface of the modern American psyche. These coneheads exist in their own self-contained world, and whatever they’re doing, it’s strictly their own business.

Fish Slide - Ian Harbour
They could be part of some notional computer game. The colourful, simplified forms of the paintings certainly have something of the look of old games graphics. They are filled with a sense of motion, which is particularly evident in the paired Alien Fish Slide and Endowment pictures. Both also share a sense of transformation, of circular or cyclical processes in action. In the former, squared off glaciers floating in translucent seas are carved with steps on one face and a slide on the other. Oval tadpole forms swim underneath and shoot up onto the steps, at which point fins become dancing flipper feet. A gleeful slide back down into the ocean and they turn back into fins, ready to start the joyful process all over. The Endowment paintings feature a pink tower rising against a purple sky, with arcing skyways leading into and out from dark arches. Hopping Weebly eggheads (egg bodies) make their way into one and exit from another with a new pair of skittering insect feet. Their swift motion, signified in comic strip style by bouncing and rushing lines, suggest that this is some sort of conveyor belt, hurrying through a mass evolutionary process of instant transformation. Another Vonnegut novel comes to mind: Galapagos, in which the remnants of the human race, watched over by the immortal ghost of the son of Kilgore Trout (the imaginary science fiction writer who is a recurrent Vonnegut character), devolve over the millennia into simple simple seal-like beings, and are much happier for it.

Ian furthers the evolutionary theme in his largest painting, Bird Tree. The tree here is a snaking purple and pink striped variety transplanted from a Dr Seuss book or a Tim Burton animation, with green leaf splodges like waving hands at the end of the branches. Curious and diversely weird birds take their places in the tree, one to each branch, as if acting under direction to demonstrate the variety of forms which the evolutionary process can create.

Jellymen Watch the Drop - Ian Harbour
Other pictures inscribe colourful outline objects and creatures onto backgrounds of abysmal black. In Jellymen Watch the Drop, the eponymous beings supervise a rain of purple and green jellybeans (instantly reminding me of Harlan Ellison’s story “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman) from their promontories as they plummet into a deep chasm. The multi-coloured arrangement of beanshapes suggest that Miro may also be an artist for whom Ian has a liking. Again, there’s a sense that this could be taken from a frozen screenshot of some imaginary computer game. Press an invisible button and it will all be set into floating motion once more. A series of paintings of aliens on wilderness planets feature stripy snail-like creatures struggling up a challenging slope, and amoeboid space bugs with chirpy antennae encased in the circles of their encompassing pods, which float and land like hardy soap bubbles.

So what do these pictures say about the tastes of the public? They like bright colour and bold forms; the exercise of a vivid imagination; whimsy and quirky humour; the close observation of place, and of surprising and unusual local detail; the depiction of corners of comforting familiarity, but also of the familiar inflected with elements of the strange; folk art and emblematic or traditional images of the spiritual or the fantastic; but above all, pictures which delight and bring a smile to the lips. The HIVE contains all of these elements. It’s sure to thrive.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Pauline Boty at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery

The exhibition Pauline Boty: Pop Artist and Woman is currently on show at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, a component of WAVE, the catchily compressed and conflated collective name for the Museums, Galleries and Archives of Wolverhampton. It’s the first survey of her life’s work to be held in a public gallery since her untimely death in 1966. Hopefully it will herald her emergence from the obscurity in whose shadows she has languished for so long and find her taking her rightful place as one of the major pop artists of the period. I’ve written about her in a couple of previous posts, which partly addressed her erasure from established art histories, and I was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of being able to see her paintings, collages and graphic work at first hand. It was difficult enough to find examples of her work reproduced in books, David Mellor’s The Sixties Art Scene in Britain being the only one I had come across which offered a decent selection. All that’s changed now, since the accompanying (and very reasonably priced) catalogue (available to order directly from the museum) is filled with colour reproductions, including a good many of works not present in the exhibition. It’s a comprehensive survey, and the curator of the WAVE show, Sue Tate, provides illuminating biographical detail, cultural and artistic analysis and context and a convincing feminist reading. Boty is portrayed as a woman ahead of her time, bringing forth ideas which would become part of the language of feminism in the 70s. Had she lived longer than her brief 28 years, she would have undoubtedly played a significant part in the debates of that era and contributed much to the continuing progress towards a more equal and balanced world.

The exhibition was displayed in the triangular room which has been especially designed for the display of pop art, a particular focus of the Wolverhampton gallery. The subtly shifting intensity and tone of the lighting makes the bright, primary colours and patterns of pop painting pulse and glow. A display cabinet in the centre has a luxurious white padded raft of a sofa grafted on, positively encouraging lounging and lending an informal air to the room. The very fact that you can put your feet up and lean against the enclosed exhibits tends to deflate the atmosphere of austere reverence which can permeate the more conventional white box art space.

Boty’s work is hung in a chronological trail along the sides of the triangle, giving it a classic three act structure. It allows us to follow her artistic development and note the recurrence of certain motifs, techniques and concerns which are present from an early stage and are subsequently transformed and adapted to take their place in her mature work. An early self-portrait from 1955, when she was a student at the Wimbledon School of Art, is painted in low key blues, greys and dull yellows. It shows her looking sober and collected, a portrait of the artist filled with serious intent and purpose. The blue-grey eyes stare out with an intense but inward gaze, and there is a sense of concentrated self-reflection, of someone consciously seeking to define themselves and define their true nature. The painting stands in contrasts to the later photographic portraits from the 60s taken by Lewis Morley and Michael Ward in which she deliberately plays games with her image and with the representations of women in art, popular culture and the modern media in general.

Other early pictures find her absorbing a variety of influences, some picked up on trips to Paris. A nude in a bath from 1957, viewed from a hovering, downward-looking perspective, is reminiscent of one of Pierre Bonnard’s many pictures of his wife in the bath, although the cold blues and purples make it a particularly shivery English variant. A solidly sculptural Girl on the Beach from 1958/9, her first year at the Royal College of Art, with blue stripy shirt reflecting the colours of sea and sky, is her version of a 1920s Picasso figure, with a hint of Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach in the backdrop. The rather introverted look on the girl’s face and her protective self-hugging posture might reflect a lingering sensitivity on Boty’s part to childhood taunts of ‘Porky Pauline’ aimed at her by her brothers and schoolmates. A Still Life with Paintbrushes from 1959/61 tilts the plane and flattens the perspective in the manner of Cezanne, Braque and, in an English translation of continental styles, Ben Nicholson. A slightly later painting from the RCA years shows the influence of Sonia Delaunay with its brightly contrasting arcs and circles of segmented colour. It demonstrates an ease with abstraction and the use of bold colour contrasts which would be incorporated into the expressive panels and frames within later work, and further developed in paintings such as the 1961 Gershwin (present here via a small photo). The title of the latter suggests that these abstract shapes, lines and curves on a deep blue background are a synaesthetic representation of musical sound.

Pauline's Monitor nightmare
There are examples of Boty’s early works in stained glass on display too. She took a stained glass course at Wimbledon and enrolled in the school of stained glass at the RCA in 1958. This wasn’t necessarily the staidly conservative option it might at first appear. The Wimbledon course in particular was very progressive, adopting a highly modern perspective on this old tradition which was more forthright than the attitudes holding sway in the painting department. Boty’s stained glass shares the sensibility of her collages, which she had also begun producing at Wimbledon. Indeed, Siren (1960) takes its varied elements from a collage made in the same year – the voluptuous and gauzily draped Victorian woman, the gauntleted hand with tiny performing dog pirouetting on its thumb, the overripe and suggestively pointing bananas and phallic fountain column, and the gaping orifice of the Dantean mouth of hell from the Gardens of Bomanzo in Italy. Collage and stained glass lend themselves to surreal juxtaposition, their discrete objects abutting one another with subconsciously startling inappropriateness. They allow for a play with scale, geography and historical time, and were the ideal media with which Boty could explore her interest in dreams and dream imagery. Dreams were the subject of her RCA dissertation, and her portion of the Pop Goes the Easel BBC Monitor programme, directed by Ken Russell in the early months of 1962, opened with a nightmare sequence drawn from her own dreamlife.

Having previously only seen her collages in black and white in the Monitor film and in a book on collage (Collage: The Making of Modern Art by Brandon Taylor, in which her work is roundly dismissed), I was immediately struck by their colour, with painted backdrops setting off the black and white outlines of the cut-outs from Victorian engravings. A Big Hand (1960/1) has a gold background, whilst the sky in Hand, Secateurs and Children (1960/1) is a rich and deep blue which is predominant in a number of her paintings. Both also feature one of the recurring motifs of Boty’s collages, the giant woman’s hand which extends into the frame like a female version of Kong’s paw thrusting through the bedroom window of the Empire State Building. In A Big Hand, this great mitt lightly balances a monumental grouping of classical male sculptures between its fingers as if they were a fancy cigarette or half-eaten cracker. The hand rises from behind an ornate dome towards which Victorian ladies and gents are flocking, seemingly oblivious to this alarming apparition rising in the sky above them. The dome gives a comparative sense of scale and suggests that a towering goddess of rival proportions to the b-movie 50 Foot Woman is heaving herself up from the ground.

Victorian figures and scenes cut from engraved book illustrations are another feature of the collages, their well-defined monochrome outlines contrasting with the gaudy colours of modern advertising and packaging which are placed alongside them. There is often a connotation of the old world being overlaid and superseded by the new, with the concomitant shift in values which that implies. In other pop art collages, American imagery predominates, but Boty is more sparing in her use of it, drawing her motley subject matter from a more diverse range of sources. In Hand, Secateurs and Children, the two Victorian children who float above the tropical plantation are on the verge of being pruned by a huge pair of secateurs wielded by a giant hand whose nails are painted the glossy, shiny red of well-oxygenated blood. The little girl’s head is about to be snipped clean off, as if it were a dead flower-head. It’s like one of the more gruesome scenes in Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter.

The collages consciously play with traditional feminine imagery and associations. Lace is incorporated as a material in several. It was first used in the 1958 painting Landscape With Lace, edging the border of the frame to suggest a net curtain, turning the wild romantic vista which is the ostensible subject into a view from an imagined room. In the collage with lace and hair colour advert from 1960/1 (a lot of these works lack any official title), two scraps of pink lace are laid upon a background painted in that deep blue again. They blend with cut outs of a woman in a swimsuit and the coloured forelocks and red lips of a hair dye advert. These contrast with the more masculine imagery of clipper ships. The large intruding hand is hirsutely male this time. It sprouts from the dyed hair samples, runs parallel with the extended thigh of the swimsuit woman for a while, and makes contact with both fragments of lace. Perhaps this proximity imbues it with attributes considered more feminine, since it gently holds on to a tiny baby’s hand, which grips its thumb in turn. All of these elements are laid out upon the white, papery circle of a mapped moon, a more ancient and powerful female emblem.

Light My Fire (1960/1) mixes Matisse-like coloured shapes, painted and torn out, with a depiction of gay female desire via two Rossetti women on the cusp of a kiss. They are half-hidden by a book of red-headed matches (as red as Lizzie Siddall’s hair). One of the match stalks is bent, so that the blushing match-heads make a pyrotechnic connection between both women. A wash of watery orange forms a blossoming shadow of flame beneath the women and the matches. Both damp and afire, it’s a suggestive stain, and an indication of Boty’s frank openness about sex.

Showing Peter Blake her Picture Show collage
Picture Show (1960/1), named after the popular movie magazine, was Boty’s version of the pop art parade of heroes. She can be seen explaining to Peter Blake who the various people in it are in the Monitor film. What was black and white there is here revealed to glow with a burnished gold background. Boty differs from other pop artists in the way she mixes figures from pop culture with others from literature, high art and politics (perhaps another reason why she sits uneasily in the pop art canon). Men and women feature equally here, and are yet to be separated out s they would be in the later It’s A Man’s World paintings. Goya’s beautiful portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel from the National Gallery sits proudly in the centre, a noble focus of attention around which all else is arranged. This is also the first appearance of Marilyn Monroe in Boty’s work. She was at the centre of her pop iconography, and would go on to be the subject of several later paintings, which were in some ways displaced self-portraits. Other women who are presented as objects of Boty’s admiration are the French writer Colette, Madame de Pompadour and a selection of elegantly dressed (or half-dressed) ladies from the turn of the century and the ‘20s, all of them firmly and directly meeting the gaze of the camera. They take their place alongside Franklin D Roosevelt, Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, and a Cypriot freedom fighter. On the bottom left, Beethoven’s quill is dipped into a silver inkwell, symbols of male and female sexuality united to creative effect. In the top right hand corner, a cherub seems to be struggling to push Big Ben over, as if it has been deemed too vulgar and obvious a monument to phallic male power.

The balance of male and female elements is further established in Buffalo (1960/1), in which collaged and painted elements combine. Two dancing, tambourine shaking women in etched black and white skip across a flattened and folded out packet of Buffalo cigarettes. The solitary, solid and firmly rooted bulk of the shaggy, horned and hoofed creature definitely sells this as a manly smoke. There are three panels to the right, beyond the radiating blaze of black and red rays. On top, a clipper ship is anchored, a small and insignificant male presence in comparison with the larger panel below. Large sailing ships are another recurrent image in Boty’s work. Aside from representing male power and its imperial expression, they may also carry more personal associations. Her grandfather was a sea captain and ran a shipping line which had bases in Bombay and Persia. The longer panel stretches to accommodate the Voguishly boyish figures of two fashionably slouched 1920s women. It’s an image from a period which mirrored the 60s in terms of the new freedoms afforded to women from some sections of society. Below them, a red and white chess board provides an intellectual variant on pop art patterning. King and Queen face each other, but the latter has all the moves and is in the dominant position.

My Colouring Book
Boty’s paintings understandably take up the greater part of the exhibition, two sides of the triangle. Having begun with the earlier figurative work, the ventures into the abstract and the collages, which themselves were often combined with painted elements, it becomes clear how all of these were finally brought together within the larger scale of her paintings from the early to mid-sixties. My Colouring Book illustrates the lyrics to the Kander and Ebb song in a series of panels with amorphous borders, giving it something of the feel of a graphically adventurous modern comic. They’re bridged in the middle by the arc of a rainbow, which holds out the promise of a new beginning, the banishment of the song’s heartache.

With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo
Many of the paintings use images taken from magazines or newpapers, a version of the cut-out collage reconfigured, refined and recontextualised in oils. Like other pop artists, Boty loved her movie icons. She looked beyond Hollywood, however, drawing from European new wave and art cinema as well. With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo (1962) and Monica Vitti With Heart (1963) surround monochrome images of the Godard and Antonioni stars with vividly coloured expressions of her feelings for them and what she sees them as representing. Belmondo’s head is posed against a flaming orange backdrop. An efflorescent red flower, Boty’s symbol of female desire and sexuality, covers his hat with fleshily lobed petals. This is the male figure presented as an object of female desire. As such, it is an inversion of the vast majority of pop art objects of desire. The row of red and green hearts at the top of the canvas place him as the King of Hearts with his floral crown. Vitti’s squared-off face is enveloped in a huge red heart rimmed with cerise pink and set against a green background. Looking out at us with a warm and open-hearted gaze, she is an icon of emotional sensitivity, shorn here of the existential, self-searching angst and anomie her characters lose themselves in in the three Antonioni films in which she is the star. Here she’s more like Valentina in La Notte (in which she’s a supporting character), a spirit of spontaneity, generosity and warmth – and fun. She’s all heart.

Boty’s key movie icon, however, was Marilyn Monroe, with whom she identified strongly. Her three Marilyn pictures are brought together here and, hung side by side, form a kind of holy triptych, a celebration of the sensual enjoyment of life. The images of Marilyn are drawn from stills and magazine photos. The Only Blonde in the World (1963) uses a studio still from Some Like It Hot, Epitaph to Something’s Gotta Give (1962) a still from her unfinished final film published in Life, and Colour Her Gone (1962), the title again taken from My Colouring Book, a cover shot from Town magazine (a copy of which is included in the exhibition). All three of her Marilyns are contained within narrow filmic strips, framed by broad and brightly coloured panels with kinetic patterns of circles, curves and stripes suggestive of motion, life and vitality. Colour Her Gone was Boty’s immediate response to Marilyn’s death on August 5th 1962. She surrounds her with memorial roses, her symbol of female sensuality, and uses an image in which her eyes are drawn closed in a moment of pleasure rather than in death. The surrounding abstract panels have a sombre grey background, a sober contrast to the red and green of the other two paintings. The smoky tendrils of pink and green which waft across have the feel of the final traces of a vital spirit drifting away. Two of Boty’s Marilyn paintings are now in public collections. Colour Her Gone is in Wolverhampton’s own (purchased with the help of the Art Fund) and a truncated version is used on the cover of Sue Tate's catalogue, whilst the Tate has The Only Blonde in the World (part of which is seen on the cover of Sue Watling and David Mellor's book). In fact, these are currently the only Boty paintings in British public collections, and it was undoubtedly Marilyn’s iconic status which guided the choice. As Sue Tate notes, such images are easily assimilated into the pre-existing pop art landscape. Other paintings, which embody female desire without the presence of such a legendary figure, or which question female objectification and male violence, might prove more troublesome and disruptive to the officially established story of pop as a virile celebration or ironically distanced appropriation of the surface gloss of the consumer society.

54321 (1963) is a direct representation of female desire, with the laughing female figure reminiscent of Cathy Magowan, the presenter of the BBCs pop show introduced by Mannfred Mann’s countdown. The fairground letters counting out the title here promise the kind of fulfilment which so much 60s pop euphemistically concerned itself with. A banner fluttering on the edge of the frame almost spells it out, but the words ‘Oh for a FU’ are cut off at the point at which the censor’s ire was likely to be raised. The painting could be seen partly as a comment on censorship too, then. It was only a few years since the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, which was concerned with just such language, and its use to openly discuss sex. The layered petals of a rose, Boty’s symbol of female sexuality again, blooms outwards from its central bud above Magowan’s tilted head.

Boty’s work became more overtly political as the decade wore on, expanding on the thematic concerns of previous paintings and collages and linking them directly to the turbulent events of the decade. It’s A Man’s World I and II are two paintings which form a diptych, ideally displayed together, although only the second was present here (the first is on display in the current pop art exhibition at Christie’s Mayfair). Taken as a pair, their complementary depiction of the disjointed facets of a divided world becomes clear. They both take the form of the pop art picture wall, here in painted form, and present contrasting representations of masculinity and femininity in the modern world and throughout history. The male figures convey a dynamic blend of artistic, athletic, political and scientific brilliance and achievement. Elvis, John Lennon and Ringo Starr mingle with Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni; Einstein with Lenin, and Marcel Proust with Muhammad Ali. An African chieftain and a classical Greek head suggest that this pattern of male dynamism spans cultures and civilisations. The red bloom of female sexuality is squared off between these various figures. They have their appeal as objects of desire and admiration. A darker note is struck by the landscape at the top, however. A B-52 bomber roars of the White House, and to the right we see a fighter pilot. At the bottom, between the twinned revolutionary heads of Lenin and Einstein, whose ideas changed the world in their own different ways, Boty includes a blurred painting of footage of Kennedy at the moment of his assassination. Jackie Kennedy’s pink-clad form cradles her husband’s dying body. She is the only woman in the picture. The male dynamism, the active principle which the painting partly celebrates, is shown also to contain inherent seeds of violence and destructiveness.

It’s A Man’s World II presents the obverse of the first painting. The female figures arranged in a tiled frame around the central torso are drawn from men’s magazines, and are therefore defined by a male viewpoint. We are still in a man’s world, as the title makes plain. The women gathered here are anonymous objects of male desire, naked and nameless. Their anonymity is represented by the central figure, whose head and lower legs are truncated, leaving only the isolated sexual characteristics for the male gaze to focus on. The arms hang limply and passively at her side, and this air of weary passivity is shared by all the other unknown women who surround her. The cool classical backdrop further underlines this distanced mood, and suggests a state which has existed down the millennia. The two paintings together starkly outline the imbalance between the sexes in terms of power and expectation. By explicitly linking them via their shared titles and similarity in form, Boty makes the connection between the dynamism and power of the first with the anonymous passivity of the second, the one state defining and maintaining the other. It’s this sustained imbalance which leads to the violence which forms the sky and ground of the male picture, and the converse landscape of blank emptiness and dulled torpor in the female.

Count Down to Violence (1964) continues the themes of the Man’s World paintings, as well as developing and adapting earlier imagery. The countdown at the top is no longer in anticipation of ecstasy, but leads instead to a climax of explosive destruction, Thanatos rather than Eros. The red rose of female sexuality recurs, as do the orange flames of desire which surround it. But the rose is being clipped by a red-nailed, secateur-wielding female hand akin to the one which was pruning the Victorian childrens’ heads in the earlier collage. When we follow the blaze of orange flame to its source on the left of the frame we find the husk of a seated human figure. It’s the Buddhist monk who set himself alight as a protest against the war in Vietnam. The flames fan across to frame a black and white newsreel image of a policeman brutally handling a black man in Birmingham, Alabama during the anti-segregation civil rights campaigns of 1963. The two acts are connected by the flames to form a continuum of violence. Its continuity over time is also indicated by the portraits of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy positioned over a flag-draped coffin. The snipping of the rose stem effectively removes any trace of female sensibility from the picture. It’s a man’s world once more, with brutality suppressing sensuality and open expression. The female hand holding the cutting secateurs suggests that women play their part in the creation of this world too, even if it is an indirect role – an eradication of their own desires and outlooks.

Her interest in politics also led Boty to respond to events in Cuba: the 1959 revolution, the attempted counter-revolution at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the 1962 missile crisis. Her 1963 painting Cuba Si once again draws on non-Hollywood cinema for its title, in this case taken from one of Chris Marker’s essay films. It sets collaged elements against a brightly painted and patterned backdrop which takes its initial colour cues from a furled Cuban flag. Circular pop art patterns intersect with folk art weaves. Over the top of these we see a black and white image of gun-waving peasants on horseback, the rider at their head leading them forward with blasts on his trumpet. It looks like a scene from a film, an impression furthered by the fact that it fades out towards the bottom, turning the army into ghost riders. The ghostly hooves of the horses float over an old, torn and much folded parchment map of the island. To the left of this is the small and dapper figure of a 19th century revolutionary whom Sue Tate identifies as Jose Marti, who was also a poet. It’s a highly romantic composite portrayal of revolution, one which remains rooted in a pre-cold war world. This is acknowledged by the figure of the dark-haired, Greco-esque bohemian woman who stands to the right of centre, finger placed on lower lip in a lost in thought pose. This is left-leaning artist’s dream of a revolution Boty seems to imply with a gently mocking air.

Boty’s final completed painting before her death (from cancer) on 1st July 1966 was produced for Kenneth Tynan’s revue O! Calcutta! It’s also the final painting in the exhibition. In Bum, a bottom presents itself to the world from within a plush and purply glowing theatrical proscenium. The word bum is written below in big, eye-catchingly red capitals, emphasised by the blue, green and cream op-art zig-zags and striped outlines in whose dazzling strata it is embedded. It’s an inherently funny word, the mildest of invective with a pleasing roundness in the utterance. It puts forward the idea that sex and sensual pleasure should above all be full of joyful innocence and fun. It’s a fitting note on which to round things off.

There was a variety of ephemera collected in the cabinets which cast a fascinating light on other aspects of Boty’s life and art. Her work for the theatre encompassed roles as actress and designer. Her programme cover for Ann Jellicoe’s play The Knack, later turned into a film by Richard Lester, is particularly striking. Against a background of blue, one of her favoured colours, she places a photographic image of Rita Tushingham (star of stage play and film) coyly hugging a towel around her body. Disembodied hands emerging from neat shirt cuffs, cut out from Victorian engravings, hover around her, forefingers rigidly pointing to various parts of her anatomy. It brings to mind the discomfiting scene from the film in which Tushingham skips through the streets of London uttering the word ‘rape’ to everyone she passes whilst the young men with whom she lodges (and whom she is accusing of a mental if not an actual crime) surreptitiously follow, desperately trying to ‘shush’ her. As a play about a woman in a male environment, it was the perfect opportunity for Boty to follow through her concerns into the production of this striking piece of graphic design.

She was also the subject of a number of magazine ads, articles and photo shoots, men eager to capture her beauty and classic boho looks. She tried to exert a degree of control over these, keeping possession of her own image. So the ads, for artists’ materials, position her as an artist as well as the photographic model (and possible subject for the painters at whom the ads were directed). The photo sessions by Michael Ward and Lewis Morley (the results of which can be found on the National Portrait Gallery site) both took place in her house and studio, and she took an active in role in directing them and coming up with poses. These photos show her amongst her work, and give valuable glimpses of some paintings which are now lost. It also gave her the opportunity to play with images, ideas and preconceptions of women as artists, models and objects of desire. This is done with wit and self-reflective calculation, and adds a further layer to the works in front of which she poses. It’s in this context that the title of the exhibition, which initially seems a little clumsy, begins to make sense: Pauline Boty – Artist and Woman. The two are essentially inseparable in her case, her feminine (and feminist) worldview being such an integral part of her work.

Her appearance in a variety of further newspaper and magazine articles over which she had no control shows the kind of chauvinist assumptions and attitudes against which her work set itself. These reach their nadir with her unwitting appearance in a 1965 issue of Tit Bits magazine. The ‘article’ here used Michael Ward’s photographs, which he had placed with an agency (as Sue Tate explains in the catalogue). All traces of the adjacent paintings which gave her poses their resonant context have been cropped out, and there is no mention of her being an artist. She is reduced to the kind of depersonalised object of male desire which she had made the subject of her It’s A Man’s World II picture. You can see why she identified with Marilyn so strongly, and spoke of the fear which men have of a beautiful woman who also displays a keen intelligence and broad knowledge. Also present is David Bailey’s valedictory book for the decade which had brought him fame - Goodbye and Amen: A Saraband for the 60s. This includes his 1964 photo of Boty, head shown in close-up lying upside down on the bed in the corner of her room. Interestingly, an entirely different version of It’s A Man’s World II is being held up in the background, the head of the central woman in this case present. Bailey includes no accompanying text in his book, as he does for all the other pop artists he includes. Boty isn’t even identified as being an artist. She’s just another of his 60s ‘dolly birds’, shown as a limp, heavily kohled doll. This too was probably a deliberate pose. Boty made her own dolls, and they were included in several photos. Again, Tate points out how these were carefully and consciously used to comment on the way in which women were supposed to present themselves. Whether Bailey was aware of or cared in the slightest about this dimension is questionable.

The lack of accompanying text which would identify her as anything more than a model shows that she was already being erased from the story of 60s art almost before the decade was done. Her early death is often held up as an explanation for this disappearance. But how many others have achieved instant immortality through tragically abrupt departures. No, there’s something else at work here. Even if her work weren’t on display in Wolverhampton, it’s unlikely that she would have been featured in any significant way in the exhibition of British pop artists currently on display at Christie’s Mayfair. It’s a heavily male affair, with the only other female artist being Jann Haworth, the co-creator, with Peter Blake, of the Sergeant Pepper cover. Whereas her Pop Goes the Easel cohorts Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips and Peter Blake all have a significant number of works in the exhibition, she is restricted to just two paintings – Celia With Some of Her Heroes (1963) and the first of the It’s A Man’s World diptych. But at least she’s there, increasingly an accepted part of the story. At last it seems it’s time for her remarkable, coherent and challenging work to emerge into the light once more. Pauline’s back.