Marcus Harvey at the Jerwood
The Chapman Brothers exhibited at the Jerwood in 2014 and are now followed by another YBA (Young British Artist): Marcus Harvey. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths went along to experience the exhibition as she was not very familiar with his work. Except for one specific piece of art.
Harvey bound into the public eye with the iconic picture of Myra Hindley, blonde hair dark eyes staring out, re-imagined and reworked into a collage of tiny child’s hand prints. It was poignant and upsetting and, inevitably, many people found it offensive. Yet he was apparently mystified that it caused such a storm. It could be thought innocence, naïvety or plain attention-seeking. You don’t take an image like Hindley and blend it with children and expect people to say, “oh how lovely”. There was an outcry: the portrait was defaced with eggs and ink; Royal Academician, Craigie Aitchison, resigned, albeit temporarily. (Ironically, Aitchison’s The Crucifixion 1994 stands sentinel above the Jerwood stairs in the upper gallery, watching over the exhibition.)
That was part of the Charles Saatchi’s Sensation Exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. That was then, this is now: nearly two decades later with his solo show Inselaffe, (which apparently means ‘Island Monkeys’, created as a derogatory, but light-hearted term to describe the British islanders).
Harvey says: “My work is not a political or social comment as such. The comment is my embracing these figures as being socially significant, who they come together with is the comment. I don’t necessarily say that is a good or that is a bad person.”
When you add in figures like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to the sculptures, it is difficult not to think of it as anything other than political or social comment. Other figures also feature – Churchill, Nelson, Hitler, Reagan – politicians that have directly or indirectly shaped Britain’s identity and history.
To an extent it is playful and on another day I might have found it so. It has references to Hastings through found objects in and around Hastings or from joke or tourist shops incorporated into the sculptures. The black, threatening seas were photographed from Hastings’ shore. Many of the artefacts recur in the sculptures, mishmashed together: footballs, policeman’s helmet, boats, hands, sheep, religious crosses, fruit, doll’s head or joke shop rubber masks of Thatcher and the gurning smile of Blair.
Britishness and identity.
But rather than being fun, they seem bleak, stormy, threatening. The white cliffs of Dover in The English Cemetery look as if they are made up of decaying, industrial buildings, a battered country; brooding, forbidding – and certainly not welcoming.
Maggie Thatcher forms many sculptures – sexualized. The Virgin (Maggie) a black and a white baby at her breast, an Elizabethan ruff at her neck, a parrot and a vulture on her head. Maggie Island has Thatcher stripped naked, a pig’s head on her hip, large bosoms, smiling seductively.
Boats overloaded with cargo – our history– an ominous vulture atop it. So overloaded with its history, will it make its precarious journey over the sea? The Inselaffe sculptures were created before and around Brexit. The brooding border of the white cliffs of Dover, the overloaded boats, capsizing during perilous journeys to another life, all have echoes in Harvey’s sculptures. Intentional or not, political, social comment, or plain mischievous? All food for thought.
I would say go to the exhibition and go with an open mind. It is certainly thought provoking. After I had seen the exhibition I went into the café and looked out from The Jerwood towards the Stade. There were the flags, holiday makers going to the beach, eating fish and chips or ice creams, dogs, seagulls, children, a mini steam train, winches and tugs.
And, of course, there are the fishing boats and the fishermen – the largest beach-launched fishing fleet landing its catch on Hastings beach for over a thousand years: present day built on the past; memories; well-honed practices and deep knowledge of the sea and marine life right in front of The Jerwood. People and things thrown together, odd connections that make up a country and lives. Very British.
I’m not a great admirer of some of the YBAs and only time will tell how they will sustain. However, someone who lives on still is the irrepressible, always experimenting, Picasso. There is a small exhibition upstairs of his paintings, ceramics as well as photographs of him and a quote from him. “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” We could all learn from that.
Marcus Harvey’s Inselaffe is on until 16 October 2016. Bitten by Picasso is on until 9 October 2016. Jerwood Gallery, Rock a Nore,Hastings TN34 3DW Open Tuesday–Sunday and Bank Holidays 11am-5pm.
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