There are currently two exhibitions of Pop Art on near to me at the moment. One at The Lightbox in Woking which looks at the more traditional and recognisable works associated with Pop Art – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein et al; the other at Tate Modern in London which takes a completely different view and features artists from countries not normally connected with Pop Art including South America, Eastern Europe and the Far East. Many of these countries during the 60’s and 70’s were either ‘closed’ or had repressive totalitarian regimes, which makes the artworks all the more suprising.
The Tate exhibition examines the ideas of Pop and what emerges is that the visual ideas and techniques we all recognise from mainstream Pop are reimagined and applied to promote more serious issues such as social inequality, the role of women, sexual freedom, civil rights and war. Bearing in mind that the artists were living and working in countries with strict rules on freedom of speech and censorship, the work is all the more remarkable. The second thing that stands out is the large number of female artists, just under a third of the artists exhibited are female, something that is exceptional and almost unheard of when you think about the traditional Pop Art canon. The exhibition is divided into 10 rooms each one exploring a different theme. The first room introduces ideas and themes explored in the exhibition and here we see that popular imagery is not limited to the usual advertisements and pin ups of conventional Pop. Jerzy Zielinski’s “Without Rebellion” is a striking mixed media piece of a simplified painted face, the eyes represented by an eagle in front of a sun, the national emblem of Poland and a large protruding soft-sculpture tongue through which a huge nail pins it to the floor. A telling comment on freedom of speech in communist Poland in 1970.
Eveline Axell’s piece showing a simplified female figure with an open zip front and a space helmet is a reference to the first female Russian cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova and also a comment on the liberalisation of women.
As you move through the various rooms the work is recognisable as belonging to Pop Art but also that it has a more serious message behind it, the banality of much of conventional Pop is missing, instead the voices of the artists shout loud to be heard.
The above interesting photomontage by American artist Martha Rosler mimics the Richard Hamilton piece “What Makes the Homes of Today….” and talks about the place of women in the art world – often seen by male gallery owners and critics as really only fit to keep the house, or in this case, the gallery clean and tidy. Rosler is an influential artist and writer whose work deals with the role of women.
A much more recognisable Pop Art piece from the Spanish collective rework imagery by mainstream Pop artists such as Lichtenstein and Warhol to discuss the cold war struggles going on at the time.
Croatian artist Boris Bucan appropriates the logos of the consumerist West and substitutes the word ART where the product brand name should be to make a comment about consumerisation of the former Communist Yugoslavia.
Note: the above images are scanned from the exhibition catalogue which accompanies the “The World Goes Pop – EY exhibition” at Tate Modern and while I don’t have permission to use them, I did feel that it was important for readers to see examples of the work on show since this such a fabulous exhibition and well worth seeing.
This exhibition shows another side to Pop Art, one which is not readily accessible or promoted in educational establishments which often tend to offer up the same old suspects. I have come away wanting to find out more about these artists and especially the female artists, information about whom there never seems to be enough.
The exhibition at The Lightbox in Woking is a complete contrast to that at Tate. While being a lot smaller, it focusses on the consumerist aspect of Pop and suggests that it shows that Pop Art is very much alive today. The work on show is mainly by the usual suspects – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine and Claus Oldenburg with some others thrown in for good measure, including a couple of names which crop up at Tate – Evelyne Axell and Niki de Saint Phalle. The Lichtenstein works are the usual comic book style images while the feature wall is covered with a series of Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’ screen prints; both images that most people will easily recognise. It is great though that works by such high-profile artists can be seen in smaller regional venues at a fraction of the cost of a Tate show. The pieces that stood out for me were the set of images by Billy Apple titled The Hathaway Shirt Man 1-4 which prints the image of a man on to the fabric used to make the shirts made by Hathaway in 1964.
image from Pinterest
I liked the reference to Warhol and also that the man is wearing an eye patch, although the Hathaway company apparently always used this image in its advertising.
My favourite piece was the Potato Sack cut out dress, a pattern for a simple shift dress printed on to a cotton potato sack. One had been made up into a dress while the other was displayed as a sack. On the front of the dress is printed the words –
Be beautiful in a Potato Sack. Looks like a sack, feels like a sack, IS A SACK. Fill with 100lbs of charm and save money on new French inspired creations. Guaranteed to loose shape without ironing. For evening wear add mink trimmings.
The artist for this was unfortunately unknown but the dress was printed in 1960 for the Charterhouse Manufacturing Company.
image from Pinterest
I love this dress and would probably wear one myself if I didn’t already look like a sack of potatoes! It was made from cotton with the Pop style playbill lettering and satirises the new French fashions mainly by Pierre Cardin that were popular in the USA at the time. It also references the dresses worn by the rural poor during the Great Depression which were actual potato sacks and a publicity photo of Marilyn Monroe from the mid-1950’s wearing a belted sack and high heels. I think this kind of thing would not be out of place on the catwalk today! Also on show were some fabrics designed by Andy Warhol which had been made up into dresses and shows perfectly how Warhol made the transition from commercial designer to fine artist and how he didn’t really differentiate between the two.
So, is Pop Art still alive today as the exhibition guide suggests? Yes it is, although styles have changed the focus is still very much on consumerism and the banal everyday, much of it seems to be more in the manner of Street Art. I don’t see it being used as a vehicle for protest or agitation – at least not in the same way as the work in the Tate show. Interestingly there was a group of students drawing in the gallery, but a sneaky peek at their sketchbooks revealed that they were basically copying what was already on the walls, but then we’ve all made something in the style of an artist we admire. I made this piece many years ago in response to a retrospective exhibition of Roy Lichtenstein and an article about a proposed alteration to a new statue of a mermaid in the Polish town of Ustka.
After Roy – The Mermaid (Gillian Collins 2004)
Is Pop Art still alive and relevant today – you bet it is!
The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern is on until 24th January 2016 admission £16
Warhol and the World of Pop Art at the Lightbox, Woking is on until 1st November 2015 admission £5