From the Archive

From The Archive

On From the Archive we will temporarily republish key articles from the Art + Australia Archive dating back to 1963. The Art + Australia Archive is a valuable resource of discussions and debates about art, artists and exhibitions that have shaped Australian art.

You can get full access to the Art + Australia Archive by subscribing here. 

Pop Goes The Easel | Elwyn Lynn

Pop Goes the Easel

Pop Goes the Easel by Elwyn Lynn was originally published in Vol. 1 No. 3, 1963

In 1962, first at the Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne and later at the Rudy Koman Gallery in Sydney, there burst upon the art world the works of Colin Lanceley, Ross Crothall and Michael Brown. Immediately a collage of critical labels tended to obscure their intentions: neo­dada, Pop-art, new-realism, assemblage, junksters, satirists of the obsolescent world and mass-production—and to these could be added the statements that self-titled 'Countdown' Lanceley, 'Pancho' Brown and 'Day' Crothall made in the Melbourne catalogue:

'I', said Lanceley, 'have been asked to give my version of an Imitation Realist Manifesto, pronunciamiento, philosophical statement, or proclamation—but I have no patience with such things, as I only think in terms of individual paintings. A woman once asked me why a painting of mine had a tail, but why has a cat got a tail—or a dog for that matter? To me it is no mystery. It is just because they were made with one'.

Brown countenanced no fine art rules, either:

'The only sensible thing I can think of to say about art is something someone else has said, that art always comes in by the back door. As long as it leaves the way it came, closes the door softly behind it and bothers me no more, then I will be left free to continue making whatever comes into my head to make, to my heart's content'.

Crothall's statement was the reductio ad absurdum of realist demands:

 'I am the sort of person who might paint with hen's teeth if only a hen with teeth were left lying around the place. Thus I am an Imitation Realist'.

Their assemblages of toys, crushed tin, cigarettes, wire, bottletops, cheap jewellery, old scales, chains, pages from women's magazines and sheer rough carpentry were not much appreciated by the artists of Antipodean Melbourne, though the critics were rather enthusiastic. Having built an assemblage at the Museum, having made a mural at the Balzac Restaurant and having festooned rooms and corridors at Komon's, their tone changed. Crothall and Brown became more ironic: 'It is avant-garde', said the former. ‘Even now we don’t know,’ said Brown, ‘what Imitation Realist means, except that it is a title that suits us for the time being while we happen to be working as a group’. The words were prophetic.

Though they co-operated often on individual works, only Lanceley has persisted in Imitation Realism: in all of their work he said there was only poetry: 'There is no conscious revolution. There is no conscious bad taste. There is no Anti-Art. There is no Junk or incongruous materials that are not part of the creative transformation'.

These statements were not polemical, propagandist or promotional, but were part of their paradoxical use of words as both meaningful and pointless. Their very titles had the verve and freshness of those of traditional jazz where feeling and fun replaced solemnity and sentimentality in non-fine art music: Symbolic Disease of the Body Politic, Men of Doomy Destiny, Gross Debutante, Halt the Bus, Woman Without a Stitch On, Mirg's Migration into Heaven-Heaven, Just like His Uncle Fred, The Seventh Traumatic Wonder of the World, and The Policeman Takes a Healthful Walk in the Mountains. Such lampooning nomenclature raised suspicions about such apparently innocuous titles as Trajan's Column or The People Next Door.

Reactions showed the Body Politic of Criticism to be relatively free from disease. This was all the more surprising because, apart from witty puns in Barry Humphries's comic show at the Victorian Artists' Society in September 1958 - My Foetus Killing Me, E-Scape (a collage of E letters), Sharp Relief (protruding pieces of broken mirrors)—and Muffled Drums at the Terry Clune Galleries in October, 1959 where solemnity, social ills and critical ineptitude were pilloried, critics had not met such a confrontation. One critic denounced it; some were cautious; the late Arnold Shore was enraptured; but most critics and the public too, enjoyed the fun and satire. Sheer burlesque and sex ran poetic riot.

They satirised not the sexual but the sexy; this is one of the keys to the origin of Pop-art. For the English Pop-artists, and, to a lesser extent, for the Imitation Realists, reality was smothered in status symbolism: one cannot see the beauty of a Bentley for it; one can see woman only as a sex symbol; one cannot enjoy an unadvertised smoke. English artists like

Boshier and Hamilton saw in all the grossness of mass-media a lot of talent going unrecognised because it was associated, in the English mind, with ignoble promotion of goods, often of doubtful value. Americans and Australians more readily accept advertisements: the Imitation Realists were no avant-garde commercial artists out to reform advertising, and an American like Oldenburg is not concerned with the promotion of TV dinners, but with American eating habits.

English Pop-art is essentially narrative and satirical; its Junk-art has the same aim. For example Mark Boyle has a broken fire-place carrying the words 'open fire' and behind a mantle shelf of junk is a photograph of an execution. American Pop is satirical but its hU1k has, generally, purely aesthetic aims.

It was harder to sum up the art of the I.R. , whose aims varied as much as their media: they were not always non-programmatic, they were satirical or comical, but their cornucopias of Kitsch or elementary folk-art assemblages did express emotional states like an ironic disgust with life's ephemera or a mesmerised bewilderment at the glut of mass-produced rubbish, but emphasis must be on the symbolic content of their accretions and proliferations of obsolescent material. Prognoses have been confounded, because Lanceley has developed both his Baroque accumulations and, with works like Love Me Strippe, his sour satire—in 1963 he won the Young Painters' Prize and was included in the Rubinstein Scholarship and held a one-man show at the Hungry Horse Gallery in October.  In 1960 it would have been impossible. Crothall and Brown have abandoned transient, expendable, cheap mass-produced materials and the quantitative utilisation of debris, for matt, flat-patterned works not hard-edge, not Mondrianesque, bot consisting of stars, stripes and triangles, painted as though by apprentice (uncorrupted) sign writers.

What has been most important about their attitudes is that they neither affirm nor deny their world, they can ignore it or guy it; they can devour every technique or scrap of information it provides or discard (as Crothall and Brown are now doing) the lot. It is this that has cleared the Sydney air of much of its inhibiting aesthetic preoccupations.

What are some of the causes of this mid-twentieth century urban art? There is a fascination with new materials and with the effectiveness of mass-media advertisement symbols. Often a lot of what they show are 'goodies': fine girls, ice cream, toys, juke-boxes, motor-bikes. Yet Pop-artists are repelled, too, by the consistent infiltration into one's mind of posters, the glossies and pamphlets. They frequently attempt to redeem the products of mass-media and mass production by using the means of mass culture: headlines, billboards, comic strips, canned food labels, record sleeves and so on.

They do not reject popular culture; they know how millions come to life when they hear the pop singers, enter Woolworths or Coles or read the alluring advertisement. All this is directed at people. To them fine art, geometrical architecture or painting are refuges; they lack the drama and encounter of popular culture. The Pop-artist's world is not of reflection and contemplation. Peter Blake, in 1959, did The Fine Art Bit which contained reproductions of a Gothic altar-piece, a Flemish Virgin, an Arab painting, a Potter landscape and a photograph of a piece of  Renaissance sculpture, spread across the top while below were six broad bands of hard-edge paint.

They are opposed to the art of field and furrow, to the art that has become nothing more than a status-symbol - for example, the use of the Mona Lisa as a French cultural charge-d' affaires. They are not so much concerned with the preservation of tradition, if this inhibits the development of the new. They are not worried about the transient, short-term solutions in their art; they use what is expendable and easily forgotten the cleverness of other people's gimmicks fascinates them; they are more anti-big art than anti-big business whose irrational glamour intrigues them.They do not aim at the usual art public, but at youth.

They have been particularly successful in London where story-tellers like Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Bacon are popular; the violent promotion of American Pop-artists in New York has been met by equally violent denunciation by supporters of hard-edge abstraction and abstract-expressionism. In England no such difficulty was met; in Australia aesthetic prejudice and investment interests are not, at present, entrenched enough to offer opposition of consequence.

Of course the attempt to account for stylistic origins in the terms of the environment is to treat the artist as the mere funnel of his age; furthermore the situation, as will be seen, is as complex as modern life itself.

When if whispers of English Pop-art did reach them, their originality can’t be denied. The Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1952 (such as Reyner Banham, Richard Hamilton, Lawrence Holloway and Eduardo Paolozzi) began to study pop-products, mass media, car-styling etc., and at the Whitechapel's 1956 exhibition, This is Tomorrow, were shown such works as Hamilton's huge collage of figures ... one a muscle man, one a pin-up girl, in a roomful of other modern conveniences

English Pop does not live off the world of advertisement as do the Americans Warhol and Wesselmann, the former celebrated for his exact replicas of cans of Campbell Soup, en masse or by individual portrait, and the latter for his great pink American nude flanked by Coca-Cola bottles rampant on a ground of the Stars and Stripes; nor is it concerned with those vast blow-ups of comic strips by Lichtenstein. Works by David Hockney, on the contrary, look like vast mildly satirical, mildly didactic cartoons; a huge Cruel Elephant (done in the child-like manner of Lear rather than Dubuffet) crushes little creatures, labelled 'crawling insects'. Peter Phillips's Motorpsycho Tiger comes straight from trade motor-cycle magazines, but is in the gentle style of the American Larry Rivers. (It is interesting to note that this work has a herring-bone road mark across the bottom -these harder forms have come to dominate his latest works, which have the format of juke-boxes decorated with eagles, lions and hard-edged stars and triangles. Crothall and Brown are developing in much the same way).

American assemblage and combine art bears little resemblance to the work of the I.R. or to English Pop. The greatest U.S. combine painter, Rauschenberg, using tyres, chairs, socks in a cubist combination with abstract expressionism, has influenced John Bowstead; and Latham's cluttered books buried in P.V.A., may be closer to Americans like James Dine or Claes Oldenburg than to his English fellows.

What the most noted of English Pop-artists, Derek Boshier, has in common with one of the minor features of the I.R., is that he now composes, as they did at times, without collage; his matter and style come from the cheapest, least plush and most ephemeral magazines and his whimsical awkwardness is quite unlike the joyous accumulation of the Australians or the obsessed seriousness of the Americans.

With the exception of Phillips and Latham, English Pop has been rapidly transformed into a new figuration, which stems from the flat expressionism of an American, R. B. Kitaj, who studied at the Royal College of Art.

Typical of the metamorphosis is Peter Blake, who from collages of medals, doors covered with pin-up girls, Elvis Presley Wall and his 1952 Siriol, She-Devil of Naked Madness, has turned to a nostalgia for Victoriana with blow-ups of Victorian post cards and photographs.

 His Presley Wall, it may be noted, had a hard-edge ziggurat in red and yellow below the two surly portraits.

The Australians let the environment flood on to their hardboard little restriction: the English and Americans are highly selective of their environment. American painting has involved the environment in two ways: huge works like Pollock's or Rothko's involve the environment by embracing it; the other way is to incorporate it by selecting actual pieces of it or imitations of it, and this is precisely where the Australian contribution differed from the American. Dine Paints huge ties or pearls labelled Ties or Pearls; in Black Saw he fastens a saw to a black canvas; to a large white canvas he attaches a hand-sink on a central black splash. These are simply comments on linguistics and Gestalt psychology - How does the name Tie differ from a real tie or an imitation tie. With the saw we simply have the transference of adjective as in ‘ He was nailed to the bitter cross'; the sink is real, but as it cannot work orthodox associations are disrupted. This shattering of the American Dream of a Consumer's Land of Plenty is exemplified in the work of Segal who shows plaster-casts of people playing cards or driving buses as though from the remains of a new Pompeii; Claes Oldenburg models twelve foot ice-creams in cones, huge hamburgers and T.V. Diners pushed a few more degrees towards sheer nausea: the I.R. are exultantly inventive and healthy in comparison, for American collage and trompe l'oeil-Pop poses anti-creativity as an aim.

Painters, like Robert Indiana (who uses the environment by incorporating huge words like EAT) are closer to hard-edge than the assemblage and collageans; but as the label hard-edge cannot be attached to him, so it cannot be attached to the recent work of Brown and Crothall, for they are not concerned with creating large areas that pulsate like reservoirs of energy; it is simple, flat patterning not far removed from the ingénue decoration of circuses and fun-fairs.

Their right to change their style was implicit in the denial of categories they made in their earlier work. Crothall says, 'so far, I have used only flat plastic paint in several pictures - yet there is no underlying reasoning in this other than convenience'. Brown says that he now accepts the chaos of a world that he once tried to make visually meaningful: ‘By now I fully accept and am at home with chaos, and I feel free to select single ideas or objects as subjects for painting about, instead of merely cooking up chaotic visual stew ... The natural answer to this problem seemed to be to paint in flat pattern with hard edges, and it does not surprise me that many other artists have found the same solution … The term "hard-edge" seems to me a particularly useless one, since it describes an amazingly superficial and unimportant characteristic or painting'.

Theirs is the problem of all unorthodox artists today: not only to create but to resist derogatory identification with internationalist styles: not only have they changed the climate of art on the East Coast of Australia, but also have assisted those who object to statements about influence being almost equated with plagiarism.

The past and present work of Crothall, Brown and Lanceley was not created in a vacuum of course: it was created by individual and highly personal artists; its debut was dramatic and the applause can still be heard. The easel did not go Pop: it want Bang!

Links & Info