Tuesday, 28 January 2014

We sit starving amidst our gold

On the face of it, neither the appearance nor the ideas of William Morris should appeal to the Now generation.  (Very) old, beardy, lefty – the attributes shout BORING.   As for floral wallpaper, ugh, how uncool is that?    Nothing should be less popular with the students of art, music and fashion who form today’s trenders.  So, as I mentioned before, it  surprises me that several leading and emerging artists like Grayson Perry, Jeremy Deller, David Mabb and (new to me) Kehinde Wiley should reference Morris in their recent work.  The first three are Brits, the fourth African-American, and at the Victoriana show at Guildhall I also spotted Brazilian-born, New Mexico resident Ligia Bouton’s delicate diptych The Adventures of William Morris Man in which our hero battles with robotic Owen Jones in comicbook style.

They mostly reference Morris’s political views as anarchic, anticapitalist precursors of Occupy and/or stuff-the-rich attitudes, and the tension between radical political views and the assumed English pastoralism of his designs energises the artworks.  Deller’s new installation at the William Morris Gallery yokes together further elements from stone-age axes to present-day prison art, and includes examples of Morris’s Socialist speeches and agitprop  juxtaposed with allusions to the dire situation for most Russians when the oligarchs carved up all economic assets in a capitalist carnival of exploitation.   In this clip, if still live, Deller succinctly outlines Morris’s impact on his thinking.

Wiley’s recent work is less overtly political, in the agit-prop sense, in its homage or appropriation of Morris’s floral designs.   Paintings based on photos of hip-hop Jamaicans whom the artist met on a visit to the island are set inside vividly manipulated versions of Morris wallpaper.  Given fanciful Anglo-aristocratic names that cast unnamed clubbers in the roles of the nobility, Wiley's montages aim to challenge all-white western portraiture.   According to a press interview:
“I’m in love with the tricks of coaxing paint into form, and making something that’s almost a Trojan horse.  Where it’s striking, it’s vibrant, and you think only later about some of the broader cultural or political implications, some of the power juxtapositions.  All those things are important but I don’t want to bore myself or anyone else for that matter, with making work that’s simply didactic.”

The decision to embed the sitters in multi-coloured Morris designs seems to be aimed at British audiences – the unsettling proximity of ‘traditional’ English design with assertive citizens of a former colony.  I hope Wiley is aware of William Morris’s anti-imperial, anti-colonial views; if not yet, maybe Jeremy Deller can assist………

No comments:

Post a Comment