Friday, 9 April 2010

Richard Hamilton at The Serpentine

This is a modest, selective retrospective of Richard Hamilton's work, concentrating on the politically motivated art from 1967 to the present. The works are amalgams; prints and collages, occasionally with applied paint. In general, I found it rather dry to be honest - I'm sure that this equivocal reaction on my part is down to my ignorance of the political facts and climate in which the art was made.

There are essentially four rooms. The first is part of the work itself, an Orwellian construct, Treatment Room (1983-84), A dispassionately sermonising Margaret Thatcher condescends from a TV over what might be a bed or an operating table. It's a strangley anachronistic work, as if everyone has long since left the building.

My favourite room is that of a series of dyptichs concerning the British occupation of Northern Ireland. The right panels show familiar figures - a soldier in The State, an Orangeman in The Subject (right) and Bobby Sands in his filthy cell in The Citizen. The left panels are related but distorted stylings, with the strange, Close Encounters-type soft focus lights of The Subject the most disturbing.

To the right of this central room is a miscellaneous collection, including Hamilton's own photos of his television showing pictures of the Kent State shootings, and a print series in twelve 'stages' bringing on of these images to life. The exhibition is about nothing if it doesn't concern itself with the nature of the public image and its authenticity. None of the images on view is a straightforward reproduction of a photograph. These shots of Hamilton's TV immediately recall the secondhand reproduction so often to be found on YouTube as the enterprising try to circumvent the copyright restrictions of simply uploading unprocessed televisual content. Hamilton says:
In the Fifties we became more aware of thee possibility of seeing the whole world at once, through the great matrix that surrounds us, a synthetic, instant view.
Maybe this record of this democratised, commodity-art foreshadows the DIY media democracy of media-sharing and social networking via the internet - a new medium for a half-century old revolution.

The fourth room, to the left of the dyptichs is entirely devoted to Swingeing London 1967, a famous image of Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser cuffed together in the back of a police van. Hamilton, clearly preoccupied by the iconographic content of the image, produces a number of reprints, like an increasingly deteriorating photocopy.

It also fired my hitherto stalled imagination. I was drawn to thinking of Gerhard Richter's prints from the same period (Schwimmerinnen (1965) is my favourite), which also deal with authenticity and memory. Equally, James Scott's film Richard Hamilton (1969) in the foyer of the gallery (which shows news reports of Jaggers' trial) also shows images of Marylin Monroe to a narration concerning Hamilton's preoccupation with authenticity. This immediately made me think of the recent Citroen 'Anti-Retro' advertising campaign, which not only uses Monroe's images but re-appropriates them to a different voiceover, further distorting the veracity of the video - but here for vague irony rather than raising questions of truth and value.


As I thought about this some more, the images of the film moved on to Cadillacs and my mind moved on to this remarkable film from 1956... the year of Hamilton's seminal piece, widely hailed as the first work of Pop Art, Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? It would seem that Richard Hamilton's work does have considerable reach and influence, and the man's impression of what would become important in our culture also seems very much to have come to fruition.

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