Pop Art to Brit Art: From the living to the gallery

It is not very common that I write a review about an exhibition I have not seen (yet), but I got the catalogue of the exhibition Pop Art to Brit Art, at the Djanogly Art Gallery Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham University, courtesy of its curator Neil Walker.  This time, the Gallery is exhibiting the private collection of David Ross, co-founder of the successful company: Carphone Warehouse. The fact that it is an entrepreneur’s own collection is interesting for me, as an academic and as an artist, because it points at the field of Organizational Aesthetics, an area that I’ve been interested during the last few years.

Groundbreaking works by Antonio Strati (1999); Linstead and Hopfl (2000); Ann Rippin; Sam Warren and Donna Ladkin & Steve Taylor; amongst many others, have explored the potential of aesthetics in the understanding of organizations, opening a myriad of possiblities in the understanding of aesthetics in the field of organisation studies. These authors have stressed the role of aesthetics in the construction of identities of certain organisations. They also remind us of the role of entrepreneurs in collecting and promoting art, from the Alfred Atmor Pope’s collection of impressionist art to the patronage of Matisse’ work by Russian industrialist Sergei Shchukin.

In contemporary times,  “individual entrepreneurs” are not as visible as before, however, it is still possible to relate the type of art favoured by certain type of organisations. For instance, the Swiss Re-insurance company, Swiss-Re, who built the iconic St. Mary Axe (aka Gherkin) in London, have “decorated” the building with an impressive collection of modern art.

This may tell about the intangible nature of the re-insurance business, thus, it is possible to say that their corporate architecture aims at making this company visible. Manager John Coomber -CEO at the time and now a member of the board of directors- explains:  “Creativity is one of the ingredients of a successful company. This building is original, you don’t forget it easily. I  hope it will contribute to our success”. (1) Indeed, the type of art collected and commissioned by this company –Swissre Art Collection– tends to favor contemporary pieces. From the complex light installations of Olafur Eliasson to the colourful murals of Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes –As Irmas, 2003- the whole building treasure an eclectic collection of contemporary artists around the world.

Why to choose this type of art and not others? What is the corporate purpose, if any, of such choices? Anne Keller, Head of Corporate Citizenship at Swiss Re and art and Beatrix Ruf, Member of the Swiss Re Art Committee and Director of the Kunsthalle Zurich at Swiss Re explain:

“Since Swiss Re’s products and services are complex and intangible, the company’s engagement with art serves not only to reflect the company’s core values – engagement, excellence, sustainability and integrity – but also to promote dialogue and appeal to the employees at an emotional level.”  Anne Keller

“Art stimulates people to think about the world in different ways. This is fundamentally important to an enterprise that invests much of its time and energy into imagining and re-imagining the future.” Beatrix Ruf. (2)

In a similar level, although perhaps without explicit corporate aims, the collection of David Ross on British Pop Art cannot be disconnected from its patron’s entrepreneurial acumen. Here, the Lakeside presented only a fraction of this impressive selection of Pop Art, from the 1960s-1970s, including iconic artists such as Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield; Allen Jones; Bridget Riley and David Hockney, to contemporary artist such as Marc Quinn, Damian Hirst and Gavin Turk.

The exquisitely printed catalogue can give us an idea of the type of art collected by David Ross and his perception of the world. As commented by Paul Moorhouse in the introduction of this exhibition:

“Art is inseparable from its social and cultural context and, filtered through a perceiving sensibility, it articulates a view of the world at once personal yet stamped with the evidence of wider circumstance.” (3)

The inspiration for this collection is to gather works produced by British Artists during David Ross’s life time (b. 1965). Hence, the collection represents the times and history of British art. It includes brilliant exemplars of the innovative Pop Art; collages; photographs and advertisements; beautiful and serene paintings from Bridget Riley (particularly those in black and white, a rare opportunity to appreciate the evolution of this iconic artist); the graphic quality of Patrick Caulfield (whose retrospective was recently exhibited at Tate Britain); the cheeky “albums” of Allen Jones;  or the expressive sketches of Frank Auerbach in the streets of London.  In general, the visitor (perusing the gallery or the catalogue) will be assaulted by a wave of vibrant color, comics and celebrities. Take for example, “Babe Rainbow”, 1967 by Peter Blake, mixing advertising with radiant colours.  Or Richard Hamilton’s “My Marilyn” a neon collage of the process of  the Marilyn “brand” creation; nearby the intense photographs of celebrities and artists by Peruvian photographer Mario Testino.

What do I think of this? Am I attending an exhibition or reading one of the celebrity magazines?… and why not? if the whole pop culture is permeated by a language that we “understand” and “read” without questioning: symbols and faces representing transient gods, the consumerist pulsion of advertising, a world of rapid communications, fast cars, fast fashion and bright young things! It is also possible to link the collector preferences with his own career: riding the wave of the rapid evolution of mobile phones: from car-phones to the mobile, portable ‘toys’ that we all enjoy.  Because mobile phones, smart phones and tablets are surely the pop art of our Facebook/Instagram generation. Most interestingly is that the relevance of the definition of “pop art” as suggested by Richard Hamilton (one of the artists collected here) in a letter to Alison and Peter Smithson (16/01/1957)

“Pop Art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, and Big Business”

The epitome of mobile phones in our contemporary consumerist society!

Another aspect that it is interesting to note is the transposition of these works of art:   from David Ross’ own home to the white walls of the Lakeside gallery. It is both remarked by the collector and also by one of his friends, the artist Marc Quinn, in the video introducing the exhibition. This transposition is not a mere change of place and space. As reminded by my dear friend Ann Rippin, the space shift implies a change in the meaning of the work of art. Drawing upon Walter Benjamin, the transition of this collection from [David Ross’] Living to the Gallery is not without significance. From the privacy of domestic enjoyment toward public consumption, the work of art acquires a different dimension. Indeed, I am able to “see” the exhibition through the miracles of the Age of (high quality) reproduction! Benjamin uses the example of art in churches and its gradual accessibility to the “masses”:

“Painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience, as it was
possible for architecture at all times, for the epic poem in the past, and for the movie today. Although
this circumstance in itself should not lead one to conclusions about the social role of painting, it does
constitute a serious threat as soon as painting, under special conditions and, as it were, against its nature,
is confronted directly by the masses. In the churches and monasteries of the Middle Ages and at the
princely courts up to the end of the eighteenth century, a collective reception of paintings did not occur
simultaneously, but by graduated and hierarchized mediation. The change that has come about is an
expression of the particular conflict in which painting was implicated by the mechanical reproducibility of
paintings. Although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for
the masses to organize and control themselves in their reception. Thus the same public which responds in
a progressive manner toward a grotesque film is bound to respond in a reactionary manner to surrealism.”

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin, 1935

What is interesting here is to note the fluidity of boundaries between the “private” and the “public” and how a collection gathered initially for private enjoyment can be “consumed” in a gallery by viewers and audiences that create their own links and rituals with the work of art. The Djanogly Art Gallery in the Lakeside Arts Centre, suspended in the campus, surrounded by water and green, is definitively an adequate “temporary” home for this collection and the almost ritual enjoyment of its richness.

(1) Built Identity Swiss Re’s Corporate Architecture. Birkhauser Publishers. Berlin.

(2) Art at Swiss Re. Zurich.

(3) Pop Art to Brit Art: Modern Masters from the David Ross Collection. Djanogly Art Gallery Lakeside Arts Centre. University of Nottingham. Curator Neil Walker.

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2 thoughts on “Pop Art to Brit Art: From the living to the gallery

  1. Great post – interesting that a contemporary of mine should have gone for so much Pop Art – I wonder where he first saw it. Have you seen Sue Tate’s dazzling work on Pauline Boty – a virtually ignored woman pop artist. Beautiful and genius.

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