Rebel Yell: The Lifelong Activism of Two British Artists
When Margaret Harrison’s first solo show in London was closed by police for indecency in 1971, it became a pivotal moment for the artist that incited a career filled with activism. It might come as no surprise, then, that her partner, Conrad Atkinson, has also faced difficulty with censorship, including having a piece on Northern Ireland’s Troubles rejected by Belfast’s Ulster Museum in 1978. For decades the pair, who work independently of one another, have used their art as a tool for rabble-rousing, highlighting social issues through a blend of conceptual art and controversial subject matter.
Their current side-by-side shows at New York’s Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, “Conrad Atkinson: All That Glisters” and “Margaret Harrison: On Reflection,” look back at a lifetime of provocation through a selection of drawings, paintings, and installations dating from the 1980s to the present day.
Among Atkinson’s contributions to the exhibition are his newspaper paintings, sketched or altered papers—including a partially obscured front page from the New York Times dated September 11, 2001—that serve to highlight the way that the media shapes (or manipulates depending on whom you ask) the truth. A similar approach is given to the artist’s own U.S. naturalization papers, which he transforms into a statement on immigration with the childlike insouciance of a student doodling on his homework.
Ever since that first London show, Harrison’s activism has been more focused on feminism, including pinup-inspired sketches that placed male figures like Captain America in poses and outfits typically reserved for consumption by the male gaze. At Ronald Feldman, Harrison’s installation The Last Gaze injects Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” (1832) and the painting of the same name by John William Waterhouse with the added tension of the awareness of viewing and being viewed, with the addition of car rear-view mirrors. Other works include delicately rendered paintings that treat potentially dangerous objects in the style of high-end jewelry advertisements and department store scenes that update Édouard Manet’s A Bar of the Folies Bergère (1881-82) with modern examples of working women on display.
Harrison has noted that in the decades since their debut, the controversial images from her first show have come to represent more the broadened options for self-expression available today than the radical statements on gender they once were. Likewise, the works by both artists in this exhibition serve to show how activism can move things forward, in art and beyond.