While spending a few days away with my lovely colleagues this week, a surprise treat was seeing part of the Andy Warhol exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery. The exhibition is part of Art Rooms on tour, and is split over two sites – paintings and prints at the City Art Gallery, photos and film at the John Hansard Gallery (which I’m hoping to visit next week).
I’m quite a fan of Warhol and his work. Partly I like the bold and often quite simple style of his painting and prints. But as a big fan of popular culture, I really like the way he both critiqued and created so much of it. He raises all kinds of interesting questions about the value of art and what it means to be famous. And the way he created a persona and made himself a brand, effectively becoming his art, touches on important aspects of identity and how we portray ourselves to the world. It was Andy Warhol who suggested that one day everyone would be famous for 15 minutes – now we expect those 15 minutes as our right. I’m fascinated by our obsession with celebrity, and what it says about the things and people we value, and Warhol is both a brilliant example and a brilliant commentator on the whole thing. So I was pretty excited when a group of us headed to the (FREE!) exhibition…
It’s a small exhibition connected to the more permanent collection on display (which, it turns out, has some pretty great stuff in it too – definitely worth a return visit!). There are 3 rooms of paintings and prints, and then a room showing Melvyn Bragg’s documentary Andy Warhol. But the advantage is that you get a couple of really helpful snapshots of Warhol’s work, and the influence he had on others, without being overwhelmed.
The first room included a couple of really famous paintings, like his slightly sinister self-portrait Self-Portrait Strangulation (1978), and the quite imposing Gun (1981) which places two almost-identical images of a gun side-by-side, forcing you to examine them carefully and increasing the power and tension of the image. This room also features one of my favourite Warhol pieces, Camouflage (1986) which places 4 multicoloured camouflage patterns side-by-side.
Camouflage was invented to blend into the background, but in this setting it has the opposite effect. Warhol accentuated this by changing the colours and playing with the contrasts between the different panels. On one level, he’s emphasising the pattern, removing it from its intended setting and function. The whole idea of camouflage and hiding is basically the opposite of the fame and notoriety that became such a part of Warhol’s work and image. He also takes something with violent connotations and makes it fun, even faintly ridiculous. Plus it’s very ‘pop art’, playing with a found image (which is probably one of the most well-known images around).
The second room majored on posters and paper prints. The most obvious feature here was the variety of styles and subjects in Warhol’s work – from movie posters to adverts for his own exhibitions, the wall was covered in all kinds of things. I think this room also gives a hint of the influence Warhol has had on style and design ever since. Lots of the work seemed almost familiar, because so much of it has been referenced, if not directly copied, in much of the advertising and media we see around us today.
My favourite part of the exhibition was the third room, which concentrated on Warhols later black and white paintings which reproduced found images, usually advertisements or magazine cuttings, in large scale. Warhol apparently said, “Black is my favourite colour, and white is my favourite colour,” and the effect of these simple images is quite striking. They were displayed in pairs, sometimes direct duplicates, sometimes one the negative of the other. Warhol liked to place duplicate images together to force you to play ‘spot the difference’, even though there is none. The result is that the image is intensified, and the effect is different than if it was one image on its own.
What I found particularly interesting was the way the different paintings were placed together, and the ways they interacted. For example, Christ $9.98 showed a plastic Jesus for sale for less than $10. Another displayed the phrase, “Repent and sin no more,” as a slogan copied from a poster. These were displayed alongside adverts for hamburgers and paratrooper boots. It seemed like the Catholic Warhol was commenting on the consumer attitude towards religion and piety that many have – you can buy yourself a Jesus just like you can buy yourself a hamburger.
And I think, for me, this is the most fascinating thing about Andy Warhol. Given the size of the exhibition, it only really scratches the surface of all he had to say about fame and celebrity and consumerism. But I think Warhol’s work asks questions of the same celebrity-obsessed, mass-produced pop culture he had a hand in creating. What’s real? What’s authentic? Do we create ourselves, or do we get our meaning from somewhere else? What started with Warhol has brought us to a place where we can decide who we want to be, and where fame and noteriety promise us meaning and significance. But in a post-Big Brother, X-factor-weary world, we’re starting to realise that people are looking for more, because we need more. And this exhibition begins to hint (because that’s all a tiny selection like this can do) at some of those deep questions.
The exhibition runs in Southampton until 26th June 2011
[For a slightly different, but still very helpful perspective, have a look at what Cat had to say about the exhibition.]