visual culture wales

Articles by Huw David Jones

Pop and Abstract

Pop and Abstract is the latest collection-based exhibition to adorn the National Museum Cardiff’s new galleries of contemporary art.  It is a large show – it takes up much of the west-wing – filled with huge colourful canvases (and a few sculptures), and follows the museum’s recent commitment to have more regularly changing displays.

Allen Jones, Buses (1964)

Allen Jones, Buses (1964)

The theme is a bit of a mismatch. Abstraction was a serious movement for serious artists dedicated to exploring form and colour. Pop art was far more playful and ironic.  It also marked a return to representational painting.

Peter Blake, Kamikaze (1965)

Peter Blake, Kamikaze (1965)

The organisers seek to resolve this tension through emphasising the ‘big, bold and colourful’ elements common to both movements, though I suspect they simply lacked the material to concentrate solely on one or the other.

The section ‘Pop and the Everyday’  is particularly light. ‘Pop art’, we are told, ‘took its inspiration from popular forms of culture such as comics, television and film, pop music and advertising….  Many artists in Britain looked towards the growing confidence and influence of American popular culture.’

Yet much of the imagery on show reflects British obsessions: the suburban bungalow, the tidy terraced doorstep, the routemaster bus.  Only Richard Smith’s Staggerly, inspired by Lucky Strike cigarettes, or possibly Peter Blake’s tribute to the Japanese-American wrestler Kamikaze truly celebrate American life.

The exploration of ‘Colour Field and Hard Edge’ painting, which features examples by Bridget Rilley and Jeffrey Steele, is a little more comprehensive. It also presents an interesting contrast to work by the likes of Alan Davie or Maurice Cockrill in the adjacent room on ‘Gesture and Action’ painting: the one precise and devoid of personal expression; the other an explosion of the artist’s inner emotions.

Jeffrey Steele, Four Sets of Four Chromatic Oppositions (1972)

Jeffrey Steele, Four Sets of Four Chromatic Oppositions (1972)

The exhibition’s opening section, ‘Still Life and Abstraction’, traces the origins of abstract art to the work of Cezanne. There are some delightful examples of early British modernism by Ben Nicholson, John Piper and David Jones.  But it is hard to see how we get from these small, intimate works, to the bold, brash canvases in the rooms which follow.

Alan Davie, Crazy Gondolier (1960)

Alan Davie, Crazy Gondolier (1960)

Which brings me back to the exhibition’s essential problem: there is not enough here to provide a full survey of pop and abstract. First-rate examples of either movement are few and far between.

At the same time, the exhibition fails to do justice to what could have been a far more interesting and relevant topic for a national museum: the Welsh response to abstract and pop art.

To be sure, Ernest Zobole, Denys Short and Ken Elias are presented as Welsh examples of pop.  Rather more convincingly, Jeffery Steele’s pioneering Op Art painting makes it into the section on hard-edge abstraction.

However, little is said about how pop and abstract were interpreted in a Welsh context – how for some it symbolised the hopes of a ‘new’ Wales, while for others it marked the loss of ‘traditional’ Welsh values in the face of Anglo-American cultural dominance.

Pop and Abstract certainly contains some gems. But as a survey it is incomplete.  Nor does it explain what these two movements meant for the visual culture of Wales.

Pop and Abstract is at the National Museum Cardiff till September 1, 2013.

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