'To draw and paint a subject is to dismantle it, reassemble it, understand it and possess it. My Muses are usually images from the media - depersonalised, and therefore immaculate and not subject to the inevitable compromises of daily life.' Gerald Laing, 2008.
As one of the original wave of Pop artists Gerald Laing produced some of the most significant works of the British Pop movement and today continues to hold his rightful place as one of the leading artists of his generation.
He first came to prominence in London in the early 60s, where he pioneered the painting of enormous canvases based on newspaper photographs of models, astronauts and film stars. His 1962 portrait of Brigitte Bardot ('BB') is considered his most iconic work of the period and regularly features prominently in major Pop museum retrospectives.
Laing was one of the few British Pop artists to cross the Atlantic and partake in the movement in the US as well as the UK. He exhibited widely and entered many important private, academic and corporate collections, as well as museums including the Whitney and MOMA.
Eventually disillusionment with the American dream led Laing to leave New York in 1969 and move to the Highlands of Scotland, where he turned his back on painting and concentrated on producing an incredible body of sculptural work for the next 35 years. Initially exploring abstraction, Laing moved on to some of the most beautiful figurative sculpture of the 20th century, encapsulating his ongoing fascination with female beauty and its dichotomy of power and fragility. He also undertook several high profile public commissions including the Twickenham Stadium ‘Line Out’ figures, the bronze bas-relief twin dragons at each of the five exits of the City of London's Bank station, and his portrait bust of Sir Paul Getty which is a permanent feature at the Getty Entrance of the National Gallery, London.
Laing returned to painting in 2004 and the body of work he produced in response to the war in Iraq is one of the most important and incisive commentaries on its human and political consequences. Returning to his roots, Laing used Pop imagery - one of the few who could do so with such legitimacy - to shame the perpetrators of the war crimes at Abu Ghraib. Expecting controversy, Laing received only praise.
In 2007 Laing returned to painting the contemporary media images that had earlier inspired such enduring images as his 1962 Bardot, his painting hiatus seeing him return to the medium as fresh and contemporary as he was when he put down his brush at the end of the 60s. The iconic images he created have an assured place in both popular and art history, and confirmed his ability to distil the essence of an era to stunning effect.
Finding his contemporary muse in Amy Winehouse and questioning the media's attribution of mythical status upon her, Laing once again subverted obvious conclusions and sharpened the focus of contemporary thinking. In 2008 said: 'For the past three years I have been painting various contemporary images, but the one subject which has engaged me most is Amy Winehouse, and there is no doubt that she has become my most recent muse. What interests me is the combination of the wonderful graphic power of her visual image and the extraordinary and almost mythical events of her life. The latter are always misunderstood, misinformed and misrepresented by the media; but they are the stuff from which a mythology is created.'
Laing’s first in the series depicting what he called Winehouse’s ‘episodic’ life was his 2007 painting ‘The Kiss’, taken from a paparazzi photograph of Winehouse and her then husband Blake Fielder-Civil at the MTV Music Awards of the same year. Critics instantly hailed the image as his ‘new Bardot for the new era, and underlining the importance of the image Laing produced a silkscreen edition which has now become one of his most collectable contemporary pieces.
Laing's next muse was the British model Kate Moss, whose image he painted in 2007. Again taken from a media photograph, this time of one of her early Calvin Klein campaigns, it is the only of his contemporary pieces to contain elements of the abstraction so resonant of the beautiful body of sculpture that had preoccupied him throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. Critics likened ‘KM’ to Picasso’s 'Desmoiselles D'Avignon' and linked her back to Laing's famour 1962 'BB' image with the circular frame of her face and the initialled title. Laing said of the image: ‘I got into a visual riff, thinking about what I’d read and heard about her, it’s for me amazingly sensual’.
‘Domestic Perspective’ followed 'KM', a wonderful image taken from a 2008 paparazzi shot of Winehouse hoovering in the doorway of her house in Camden. In 1964 Laing painted a pioneering shaped canvas of Jean Harlow, and ‘Domestic Perspective’ echoed this with Laing shaping the bottom of the hoover down from the main canvas. It was important to Laing to interpret the shaping of the canvas into the 2008 silkscreen edition in which the hoover leaves the main image into the white of the border, beautifully complementing the playfulness of the image while also an homage to Laing's pioneering technique.
‘Gethsemane’ followed in 2008, painted from a paparazzi shot of Winehouse kissing her then husband goodbye during his 2007 arrest for allegedly perverting the course of justice. The painting and the silkscreen edition removes the background to bring the protagonists to the fore, this and the silver foil blocking of the handcuffs in the edition highlighting the starkness of the moment. The edition was the show print for Laing’s 2008 ‘New Paintings For Modern Times’ exhibition in London, the first time that the Winehouse paintings were exhibited together.
Laing’s final painting of the series was his sumptuous 2008 ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, taken from a press image of Winehouse at the 2007 Mercury Awards in London. Laing pixelates her companions at the table as she reaches for the champagne, the title highlighting the excess of the scene and the message of ‘the writing on the wall’ held in the original Rembrandt painting. The thirty colour silkscreen edition was released in 2010.
Also included in this exhibition are two well known muses from the 60s whom Laing revisited as contemporary silkscreen editions in his later period, giving an important cultural and art historical framework to his contemporary muses.
'Anna Karina' was painted in 1963 just after 'BB', a towering piece made of nine canvases pieced together to make the full image of the actress. She was so enormous that Laing needed pram wheels to push her through London to her first showing at his graduation show at St Martin’s School Of Art. Laing said of the piece: ‘The inspiration was a 3cm high advertisement which appeared in the London newspapers at that time were advertising Jean Luc Goddard's new film, VIVRE SA VIE, in which the lead role was played by his wife Anna Karina. I wanted to monumentalise and immortalise a fragile and ephemeral newspaper image of a film and an actress which I felt captured an urban mythology of the times.’ The stunning 2004 silkscreen edition bears the markings of the original nine canvas divisions.
The 2011 silkscreen edition of 'Jean Harlow' was Laing's final work, and beautifully completed the circle of Laing's career. Originally painted as a commission for Robert Indiana in 1964, the image taken from a publicity still for her 1938 film ‘Dinner At Eight’, ‘Jean Harlow’ is now one of Laing's most recognised and celebrated early works. When revisiting her as an edition in 2011 Laing spent months perfecting the original colours of the now-faded painting, and seeking the best techniques to represent the sumptuous touches of the original. Thousands of pieces of silver dollar foil were hand-applied to each silkscreen print to provide the perfect shimmer for Harlow's gown, while hand-applied platinum leaf adorns both her vanity mirror and shoes. The enormous pride Laing took in this edition and the revival of one of his early muses makes its status as his last work all the more poignant and fitting.
While Laing also painted male figures such as his astronauts and racing drivers of the 60s, it is his fascination with the female muse that holds a continuum throughout his career. This stunning collection of his contemporary silkscreens brings together the new muses who caught his attention during his later years along with those who still held it more than four decades later.
The importance of this body of work is threefold: the rare 'time capsule' return to painting by such a major Pop artist; the renewal of the message of Pop Art, its ethos brought effortlessly forward forty years and affirming the enduring cultural significance of the movement; and in the incredible breadth and depth of the talent of the man, whose extraordinary career spanned several decades, movements, and mediums, and who once again contributed immeasurably to our contemporary culture with with, grace and permanence.
(c) Copyright Olivia Connelly 2018