The following article first featured in March 2004’s issue 8 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.
This article investigates the ecclectic influence of the use of Brit-Pop culture and kitsch in todays public realm.
Brit-Pop-Art – Influence of British populist culture on public art
The end of the Second World War in the USA saw the birth of the ultimate consumer society. Amongst the young, new values awoke, and resultant protest movements sprang up. Artists like Jackson Pollack, began to consider art as something close to life – the world was one great painting. Similarly, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein realised that the graphic medium itself generated fertile imagery, and was an art rooted in street-culture. Suddenly any sociological raw material was art, and early pop art was born. Yet, for many, the real origins of pop art was to come a little later in England, when it became influenced by an increasingly dominant modern art form – popular music.
So it is, that one of Britain’s most original early pop artist’s, Sir Peter Blake, has recently unveiled two new artworks within the Northwest at the age of 72. One is a reworking for Liverpool Capital of Culture, of his famous cover for the Beatles ‘Sgt Pepper’ album – surely one of the most defining images of the 1960’s. The second, two bronze sculptures forming his first permanent public art commission, is installed on Blackpool’s south shore – a small but important element from a first phase of the bigger £1 Billion of regeneration being discussed, after tourism tsar Peter Moore and masterplanner Jerde and EDAW’s visionary engagement by Blackpool Borough Council.
The collage Blake has produced for the 2008 Capital of Culture illustrates a so-called ‘Homage to Livercool’. This time however, all the featured personalities have been chosen by the city itself, and the work portrays (surprise, surprise) Cilla with all the usual suspects – as well as Red Rum and some rather more obscure Scousers, in Bond-Girl Halle Berry and Austin Powers actor Mike Myers. It is interesting to note that this reworked seminal piece also resonates with comparison to both, the current Urbis exhibition of ‘The Peter Saville Show’ – legend of the 80’s Manchester graphic art/music scene; and ‘Pop Reloaded’ – now showing in the fifth Project Space at Tate Liverpool with contemporary pop art by Michel Majerus. Over five decades, Blake has worked in a variety of media other than just the painting and collage for which he is often best known. His artistic kleptomania, persisting to this day, is said to originate from his early Gravesend Technical College days spent rummaging around junkyards. He is still acclaimed by established and younger artists alike, and continues to bridge the divide between avant-garde art world and, what he terms the “populist culture” (as opposed to popular culture) of the common people. He sees his magpie-like eclectic art as a way to pull in new audiences through challenging and yet humorous art – all done in an act of diminishing “public encore” in lieu of retirement.
Thus, the two new bronze sculptures called ‘Circus’ were inspired after Manchester based artists ‘The Art Department’ (with their conceived open-air gallery ‘The Great Promenade Show’) made a request to Blake to add to the superb collection of eccentric artworks staggered along Blackpool’s sea front. A number of major artists are already represented here, including other populist type work such as ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ by Michael Trainor (otherwise officially known as the ‘Worlds Largest Mirrorball’), inspired by the 1969 dancehall-marathon classic, and ‘The High Tide Organ’ by Liam Curtin and John Gooding, which uses the movement of the waves at high tide to push air through pipes to sound a 50-foot organ sculpture, creating what the artists call, a “musical manifestation of the sea”. Now that Blake’s work finally gets to sit alongside this fairground freak show for art, it should enhance his depiction of a macabre cabinet-of-curiosity eclecticism. The bronzes form what he calls a “duet of circus performers” – totem poles of figures and objects acrobatically balanced on two circus horses, and all sourced from his back collections of ephemera. His reported intention is to produce miniatures for sale, to sit alongside the Blackpool kitsch – and presumably at an affordable price for his much-loved common people. This should provide Blackpool with it’s 21st century equivalent of ‘Young Albert’s’ iconic ‘stick with the ‘orses ‘ead ‘andle’ – and set the benchmark for it’s ‘New Horizon’ masterplan.