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Issue 42, May 2010. See the entire magazine online here.

Serpentine Gallery, London
3 March – 25 April

By J.J. Charlesworth

Art’s involvement in political realities, and an artist’s relationship to political commitment, are almost always complicated matters. An engagement with politics that seems for the moment urgent and alive suddenly fades as the political situation around it changes, and those critical moments when commitment seems most pressing can leave an artwork looking distant and stranded once the crisis passes. In this particular moment, the political world has never seemed so confused and in crisis, so it makes the Serpentine’s focused presentation of Richard Hamilton’s ‘political’ works all the more interesting.

Hamilton, the now much-revered elder statesman of British postwar art, godfather of Pop art and the key British interlocutor of the legacy of Duchamp, has always had a view of industrial society expansive enough to allow the political world into the terms of ‘pop’ culture. Modern Moral Matters (an extension of Hamilton’s 2008 Inverleith House show, Protest Pictures) traces an arc from Hamilton’s strangely comic Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964), via the iconic Mick Jagger drugs-bust image, Swingeing London (1968–72), through the works focusing on the civil and military conflict in Northern Ireland and Thatcher’s Britain, ending up with works that deal with the Middle East – from the first Gulf War (War Games, 1991–2010) to the Blair-Bush Iraq War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What’s at stake, then, is the question of whether an artwork depends on its political moment for its meaning and power, or conversely, whether it can communicate its historical moment into the future, from the past. Retrospection is a strange process: I don’t have any personal sense of who Hugh Gaitskell was, apart from what I remember from my political history books: leader of the Labour party during the 1950s and early 60s, notorious for committing Labour to maintaining Britain’s nuclear arsenal. But it’s Hamilton’s quirky rendering of Gaitskell, monster-coloured, mask-faced and bug-eyed, which drills a tunnel through the intervening years, so that we might actually care about who this strange face was, and what he once did.

Similarly, though counterculture mythos endures about the 1967 drugs raid in which Jagger and Pop art dealer Robert Fraser were arrested, it’s Hamilton’s coolly inquisitive working up of the press image, of their faces hidden by handcuffed hands, that keeps us looking. Hamilton’s interest in serials and multiples means that while there is a well-known key version of Swingeing London, the handcuff picked out in chrome, there are many other versions – screenprints, collages, etchings – that repeat and modify the source, as if the sense of the event could not be digested in the first instance. Moreover, it’s Hamilton’s technologist interest in different formal techniques and media that reclaims the event for posterity, not because we ‘get’ the significance of Jagger and Fraser’s arrest (end of the libertarian 1960s, beginning of the conservative backlash), but simply because it memorialises it, makes it strange and refuses to let it fade.

But while memorialisation suggests moral or political outrage in its inception, it can only communicate partial trace of that outrage into the future. That’s why Treatment Room (1983–4), Hamilton’s response to the Britain of the Thatcher years, remains a chilling summary of the depth of disillusion in the early years of Thatcher’s aggressive regime, and is Hamilton’s most enduring political work. It’s not that the piece doesn’t take political sides – it was hard not to – but that in presenting the matriarchal/dominatrix countenance of ‘Thatch’ on a monitor above the bed of an operating theatre, the sound turned off as she mouths preelection promises and stern assurances, it manages to crystallise the sense of this neoliberal warrior’s implacable hostility towards us, the people, but also the desire for a ‘return to order’ that drew many to her. It’s not outrage or polemical opposition that drives the work, but an icy, uncanny materialisation of the reality of the time, regardless of our opinion of it: Britain was broken, and she was going to ‘cure’ us – whether we wanted to be the patient, or not.

In this sense, Hamilton’s vision anticipates the full spectacularisation of politics that now dominates. We have become spectators to politics, seeing, watching, aware of ourselves witnessing the course of events, but incapable of affecting it. Yet the paradox is that Hamilton’s detached, sardonic eye saw better those times in which people were more involved in political life, when the tension between partisanship and a laconic fascination with the mediated spectacle of public life could be played out more acutely in his art. But as we near the present day, Hamilton’s more recent forays – in his photo-cartoon of Tony Blair as gunslinger in Shock and Awe (2007–8), or in Maps of Palestine (2009–10), seem only to offer us polemical platitudes of a very orthodox kind – ‘Blair is bad!’, ‘look what the Israelis are doing!’ By seeming so much more angry or urgent, these work miss the strangest development of political life today – that such gestures of political protest and engagement have themselves become part of the spectacle of an otherwise entirely passive political culture.

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i visited Hamilton's Serpentine show when in town - as i always try to see whats on at the Serpentine (the Indian Highway show last year was a highlight i thought but anyway..) but yes perhaps for differing reasons - as much as i wanted to admire Hamilton's political engagement and commentary - yes i found the newer works lacking subtlety and the variations on Swingeing London just plain lazy for a gallery to repeat the image with ever decreasing impact. in my view Hamilton's best work on show was "the Citizen" - as political and pwerful as it gets. overall the show felt rushed + incomplete - which is a great shame for an artist of Hamilton's stature.
As you say, a timely show, and yours a thoughtful review, J.J.

Hamilton’s later work does seem weak. But they are really just the result of a project with nowhere left to go, formally, that makes a wholesale bid for content, to compensate. It’s a familiar artistic development, unfortunately.

But formally, Hamilton’s work has always struggled for focus, for dedication or commitment. He is never really at home in painting, looking somewhat plodding or doctrinaire as a technician there, when not given to collage or 3-D gimmicks. And the endless permutations on photo-based printing, eventually only summon the mono-print and painting, as a tentative last word, in which he simply has no confidence.

He is, at heart, the boffin, tinkering with a formidable array of industrial techniques, in the service of an Ad-man with wit, if not conscience.

While much is made of his interest in Duchamp (esoteric symbolism disclosed in novel presentation of manufactured objects) Hamilton’s real allegiance lies with the Bauhaus and similar all-encompassing design projects of the 1920s and 30s, that attempt to integrate fine and applied arts, to provide a model of interaction and support. Inevitably, the model defers to architecture. And this surely has relevance in today’s art world, overrun by curators-that-would-be-interior-decorators and infested with cultural theorists. Significantly, the young Hamilton had Le Corbusier open his early experimental show in heterogeneous imagery, Growth and Form, at the ICA in 1951. In a subsequent show (Man, Machine & Motion -1955) he and Robin Deny, amongst others, design multiform room dividers or partitions and lighting schemes, before painting or actual pictures.

It is this wider or grander view of pictures, accommodating imagery and presentation of all kinds, which is at first extremely liberating, but later proves indiscriminate or too wide. One simply drowns in options, confuses culture with art. And while it allows Hamilton to highlight mythic types and topical themes in advertising, design and popular fiction, at the same time, painting is never quite the right tool. Yet print processes (in a smooth array from fine to applied art) are then both part of the medium and the message. In a sense, the project short-circuits itself.

Hamilton, like later Pop artists, would use painting to comment on printing, except that he can never really settle on a fixed form of painting, nor a suitably common or familiar form of printing. One is not arty enough for is tastes, the other too arty. Hence he is rightly described as the ‘Godfather’ rather than father of Pop Art.

And hence we have this uneasy compromise and a certain amount of fence-sitting, where Hamilton takes an ‘ironic’ or ‘detached’ view of pop culture, while say, Warhol or Lichtenstein demonstrate a more thorough embrace. And this is true generally of British Pop.

But this also allows us to see why Hamilton is drawn to the topical – especially political – while stepping back to acknowledge mythic undercurrents, traditional iconography. The Olympian view of culture pretty soon turns to politics or ideology. Gaitskell may have been a monster, or masked one, and a monster might easily look like Gaitskell when masked, where photos strive for masks, long before Photoshop, and painting masks real faces or facts, as much as photos. Equally, Jagger and Fraser can laughingly mask their faces and flaunt their shackles, secure in their celebrity and the media’s salute to the law, going through the motions. The joke is on those that take pictures at face value.

Hamilton can offer one more link in the imagery chain there, whether it’s conspicuously a painting of a print or a print of a print of a painting of a print, etc, but without a deeper commitment or expertise in painting or any branch of photography or printing, the project becomes one of diminishing returns. The source images themselves now trigger just the kind of arch associations Hamilton has alerted us to and further reference only labours the point.

The moral, in as much as there is one, is surely, don’t preach when you have led by example.

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