Swift Passages and the Monumental Imagination
David Alan Mellor 1993
David Alan Mellor looks at Gerald Laing’s work from 1963 to 1993.
Systematic, monumental, disciplined: but also caught up with the instability of the world, the flickering of time and sight and presence. These opposing positions, these two separate metaphysics, have occupied Gerald Laing throughout his career as an artist. He has addressed historical example from the outset and not just latterly. This was implied, for example, at the very beginning of his career, when he told Mario Amaya, then writing the first survey of pop painting in 1965, that his major influence was Paolo Uccello. Here he indicated an orientation towards the body systematised in action, styled in fashionable dress, at once heraldic and modern. It was Baudelaire who had stipulated in the 1850s that modernity would be framed by uniforms, glamour and leisure iconography; he prophesied that profane edge to modernism which was constantly disavowed, but which forms such a distinctive element in Laing’s productions. It may be that Laing’s perception of the heroism of modern life stems from the conceptual horizons of a certain masculinity which was unchallenged in the 1950s, but which has fallen under siege since about 1969. His position within such an economy of meaning was contradictory. It was rooted in the culture of ‘the angry young man’ (he saw the original production of Look Back in Anger while still a soldier), while simultaneously in a fascination within ballet’s management of the body.
The contemporary human body was being redefined by the technologies of politics, space exploration and leisure in the late fifties and early sixties. This was Laing’s moment of entry into the art world and, given this cultural environment he endeavoured to create a system which would enable him to trace - as Uccello had done using single-point perspective in the early fifteenth century - the dramas of public life and civic identity, newly clothed and in the postures of the moment. Laing’s ‘Souvenir of the Cuban Missile Crisis’ (1962), painted at St Martin’s School of Art, tricks the viewer’s eye to read either Kennedy’s or Kruschev’s portrait depending upon whether they are situated to the left or right of the work, thus suggesting an allegory of political ‘perspective’. Viewed from the centre, the picture reads as a pattern of vertical flickers and optical interference - a device which later in his career would resolve into the banalities of desire in another optical experiment, ‘Love Machine’ (1965) which can be compared to the work of US pop artist Robert Indiana.
But, earlier than this, in the harsh winter of 1962-63, Laing pioneered a grid of representation that engaged more directly with the mass media. He mimicked and enlarged the screened dot systems of halftone photo-press images found in newspapers and magazines in an oil-paint format. This crucial innovation was independent of Warhol’s movement into silk-screened images as well as Roy Lichtenstein’s annexation of the ‘Ben Day’ graphic process, and Sigmar Polke’s later giantist half-tone images. (The ultimate precedent perhaps lay in the photo-realist canvases of Sickert between the end of the twenties and his death in 1942.) Laing’s interest in fixing the spectator’s body proximate to an image which was at the point of its own dissolution (atomised in the halftone screens) was partly derived from his student fondness for going up too close, beyond a comfortable viewing distance, to the photo-advertisements on the walls of the London underground. (A parallel might be made here with Rosenquist’s enforced myopia when painting advertisements.) What may have further focused Laing’s exploration of modernised photo -mechanical vision as a resource for painting was the teaching of Richard Smith in the Painting School at St Martin’s. Recently back from New York, Smith offered the prospect of mapping the simulated world of promotional selling and publicity in his ICA lectures and film screenings in the autumn of 1962. This anticipation of deconstructive formal strategies which dismantled the devices of the media spectacle was supplemented by the graphic caricaturism and figuration of the younger Royal College of Art pop painters who had graduated that previous summer. These artists which Smith applauded included Derek Boshier, David Hockney and Peter Phillips (who later collaborated with Laing in New York).
The first fruits of Laing’s stylistic revolution were evident in the exhibition which he held at St Martin’s in March 1963 called ‘Paintings from Photographs / Photographs from Paintings’ - a show whose significance can now be fully recognised. Laing assembled an array of French nouvelle vague film actresses, as well as Brigitte Bardot, to represent peculiarly removed stars, objects of desire to whom access would be forever barred by photo-mechanical distance. Presciently, he reserved Godard’s fascinating, head-on sphinx, Anna Karina, for his biggest, twelvefoot high essay in this advertising-hoarding format. In the light of his later public sculptures such as ‘Sherlock Holmes - The Conan Doyle Memorial’ (1991), it is probably important to note that Laing made a film documenting the activities of himself and his colleagues taking ‘Anna Karina’ onto various locations in the Charing Cross Road and watching its effect on passers-by as a piece of temporary street sculpture.
Laing is a phenomenologist: he charts certain (often extreme) bodily states, sensations and experiences in remarkable ways, reproducing them through bodies such as the tumbling and ascending angels of ‘Axis Mundi’ (1991) or the digitised pressure bearing down and disintegrating the images of his astronauts, racing-car drivers, drag racers and sky divers in his paintings of 1963-64. The existential thematics of instability and risk shade into a new mythical heroism which had become operative in the mass culture; or so proposed Richard Hamilton in his text ‘Urbane Image’, published in June 1963 in Living Arts.’ Hamilton nominated the astronaut as the successor to the ancient heroes of Graeco-Roman mythology, beings who could, therefore, populate a truly renovated, modernised classical iconography. The issues of gravity, its absence, and the orientation of bodies and paintings preoccupied Laing as much as Hamilton during this time.
After sharing Robert Indiana’s studio at Coenties Slip in New York in the summer of 1963, Laing returned to London for his final year at St Martin’s. Here he painted the NASA astronaut Alan Shepherd shuddering into sight through the capsule’s time-lapse camera, and Jim Clark pushed by G-force to the picture frame’s edge, as he cornered his Chapman Lotus at Indianapolis. Two bodily states arise from these epic and poetic paintings - acceleration and deceleration - energies which continued to haunt his work over the next three decades. Plummeting, speed, and an arrest which can end in apotheosis are further explored by Laing in his current proposal for a triumphal monument to Jim Clark to be built in the market place in Duns.
The Clark project belongs to one of Laing’s central achievements: it is part of his tracing of that diminishing zone of tragedy left in modern life. He had noted the powers of mortality pitched against those of exultation in 1964 when he scribbled across a US leisure-magazine photograph of a couple of sky divers a caption recording their later, unimaginable, deaths following their jump to their wedding reception. Between free fall through life and a final arrest in mortality lay a fundamental dialectic which Laing found paralleled in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (11) from the eighth century. Bede compares ‘the present life of man’ with ‘the swift passage of a lone sparrow through a banqueting hall’ before vanishing into oblivion once again. Laing’s tragic tenor reckons with Bede’s conviction that ‘man appears on earth for a little while’ and this has increasingly attracted him to entities of stability: to bronze, to long traditions, and to his castle, Kinkell, which he began restoring in 1968.
The drive which made him, when he was thirteen, seek out the Garter King of Arms to enquire how he might become a Herald, now drew him to the contemporary pop heraldry of the dragster racers: ‘dragster racing is like jousting’ he said recently, ‘and, like knights, the drivers are richly caparisoned’. (footnote 2) The bodies of these heroic figures - racers such as Big Daddy Garlits and the anonymous sky-divers behind their goggles and helmets - are screened, interrupted, discontinuous bodies at one with the turbulence of their speed. In Laing’s work of 1965 these figures begin to cede their ground to the patterned body shells and insignia of racing cars. Laing was adept at recording the progressive techno-colonisation of the body in this period. Similarly, the ‘heraldry’ of leisure and sexuality laps over and invades the bodies of his ‘beach girls’ - those recruits from contemporary surfing mythology and their endless summers - in his bikini paintings and prints. These pin-ups come before us in the guise of modernised vanitas images, figures of startling display, vectors of alluring artifice. The stress on artifice and on surface is evident, too, in the growing role of what he called ‘perfect finish’ in his increasingly abstract paintings and constructions.
At this time the boundary between painting and sculpture was being challenged by new initiatives then taking place in British art: Caro painted his welded sculptures and Richard Smith had begun to shape and give volume to his canvases. Laing looked to tradition and to craft: he utilised the skills of surviving local artisans from clock manufacturing in the Old Street area when he returned to London in 1965; similarly, he employed auto-motive chrome and paint specialists from ‘Little Italy’ in New York to work on his canvases.
His position of scepticism towards a prevailing rapid turnover of art styles and their marketing in New York in the high years from 1964 to 1968 found expression in his collaboration with Peter Phillips on the project entitled ‘Hybrid’. Again motifs of transience, turbulence and vanity are engaged by Laing in this considered satire on the ‘swift passage’ of art fashions. Aping (and mocking) the devices of consumer surveys, Laing and Phillips questioned a large cross-section of art professionals in New York and London - critics, gallerists, collectors and curators - to discover their preferences within a range of certain formal solutions, colours and finishes that would create an optimal artefact which was geared to art-consumer choice. The main-frame computers at Bell Telephone’s headquarters were brought into play to ‘crunch the numbers’ for the project and construct the elusive dream object of the contemporary art scene. The result - a plastic, wavy lined, translucent sculpture, together with questionnaires and documentation - was finally exhibited at Jill Kornblee’s gallery in New York in 1966.
We might see in Laing’s cynical, satiric ‘Hybrid’ a reflection of some of his own doubts about the growing formalism of his not altogether dissimilar painted sculpture productions. But now, in retrospect, they appear perhaps as a confident minimalism that carries the verve of the ‘man / machine’ paintings and concentrates upon that growing territory of metal and patterning which appeared in the racing and diving paintings. The body reasserts itself in a coded anthropomorphism: Michael Fried, referring to Caro’s sculpture of 1961-63, imagined a dancer dancing the movements and pacing of the welded metal. Likewise Laing’s ‘Loop’ (1965) and ‘Indenty’ (1966) are full of Baroque shifts which run laterally and vertically through the application of acrylic lacquer, metalflake and chromium which adom the flat forms. This flatness is their key characteristic: they are zig-zagging silhouettes, as thin as a ballet dancer frontally addressing an audience, like Laing’s self, risen as the sculpted dancer in his ‘Adam’ (1986). The overlay of painted curvilinear patterns renders the implacable surface of aluminium (in ‘Loop’, for example) ambiguous and playful. ‘Trace’ as a general term covers, for Laing, this group of sculptures of the second half of the sixties. If they trace anything it might be imaginary bodies suggested through a subsumed male presence, a rising totem, an erect phalli-form which often, at its base, becomes a site of softer, more cursive geometries - as with ‘Slot’ (1965) and ‘Trace’ (1965) - where localised allegories of a female-gendered morphology seem sited. This was a rehearsal of that juxtaposition of the masculine heroism of the sky diver above and the collapsing parachute below, which was found in the ‘Sky Diver’ series of the previous year. Here was a spectrum of basic signs, like Allan D’Arcangelo’s super-highway landscapes, flat and immaculate, but inflected instead towards an irreducible content of sexual difference. Concurrently, Allen Jones, with his ‘falling women’ paintings, camouflaged the female forms with colour bands and phallicised his ‘female spears’, literalising this vocabulary of gender difference.
Periodisations can always be contested, but the diaspora of a metropolitan London avant garde into the countryside in 1967-68 could be taken as one indicator of the end of the myth of the sixties. Richard Smith, Peter Blake and Howard Hodgkin all relocated, during this time, into rurality. Laing decided to move from a culturally centrifugal New York to Kinkell in northern Scotland, and there to embed himself in the long-term continuities of rebuilding a dilapidated castle. At first he continued to produce versions of his ‘traces’ but bigger still and built with the help of the local blacksmith in Dingwall in the Black Isle. Another inescapable cultural influence of this time was the psychedelic mysticism of the occult mythology of lost civilisations whose traces, in the form of prehistoric structures, could still be discerned across the landscape. Alfred Watkin’s ‘The Old Straight Path’ (1967) and John Michell’s ‘The View Over Atlantis’ (1969) indicated landscapes containing ancient symbols through alignments of megalithic structures, roads, churches and castles. (It is also hard to untangle, for example, the work of Richard Long, which emerges at this time, from such a context.) From the time of Paul Nash, in the early thirties, the notion of modernity as accessing the significance of megalithic monuments as a resource had been established. In addition, Laing had left the United States at the moment when sculptural interventions in the landscape by artists like Smithson and Heizer were occurring. Now, for the first time, Laing’s sculptures took on substantial volume and were attached to a specific (almost exclusively rural) location. Recoiling from the connotations of a functionalist world of technological forms, he refined and expanded the ascending pin forms of 1966 by appropriating the megalithic to build initiatory monuments of fertility and seduction, such as ‘Follow Me’ (1970) and ‘Bilith’ (1970).
His ‘Pyramids’ (1970-72) become formidable markers of a reasserted notion of gravity; even when split and divided (‘Bifer’) they indicate the heavy weight of authority and custom. The patriarchal phallus that rose from his constructions in the mid sixties was steely, fashionable and stylishly rationalised in its industrial references. With the ‘Pyramids’ it had become aligned with more ancient patriarchies. (In terms of Laing’s biography we should not fail to record paternity as also playing a part in these developments.) His search for authenticity had put in place a time-sanctified home and a scattering of monuments across the land. But Laing now began to profoundly doubt the efficacy of abstraction as a still viable language of modernism. A parallel can be drawn here with Wyndham Lewis in 1919. Lewis’s abstract vorticist forms were, he felt, failing to answer to postGreat War cultural meanings: they ‘needed filling’ with a more figurative, overtly representational content.
Laing’s growing crisis over the merit of persevering with geometrical abstraction was suddenly resolved through an epiphany. One summer in the early seventies Laing recalls heading across London in a taxi at dawn after a party in the East End. When he reached Hyde Park Corner he stopped, on a whim, at the Royal Artillery Memorial (1929) sculpted by Charles Sergeant Jagger. He was fascinated by the monolithic emplacement and the scrupulously reproduced machinery of the Howitzer, recalling his own intricate representation of dragster engines. But it was the overall legibility of Jagger’s heroic naturalism in the bronze statues and the relief which seemed most compelling to Laing. He was ‘so moved by it, as it conveyed the immense tragedy [of World War 11 - it was so grand, so clear, that it made what I was doing with the pyramids seem half cocked.’ (footnote 3) The historical example of Jagger acted as a rebuke to Laing’s vanguardism, presenting instead a figure of authoritative tradition that far outweighed his earlier enthusiasms for Uceello.
This dawn revelation of the authenticity of a disregarded heroic sculptural tradition was a moment of fundamental reorientation for Laing. Yet from the point of view of cultural history this was not an exceptional incident at this time. His redirection towards more apparently conservative neo-classical modes was indicative of a wider crisis within modernism at the end of the sixties which was carried through to the mid seventies. The period saw the development of forms of post-modernist classicism within architecture which ranged from the work of Robert Venturi to that of Quinlan Terry. The citation and reinterpretation of tradition and its lost forms of authority were perhaps the most striking features across the entire intellectual landscape of the seventies. We might now see Laing as part of that larger conceptual restructuring. He had contact, in this period, with individuals such as Paul Johnson who were challenging the received wisdom of consensual progressivism in the sphere of political thought. More recently Laing has executed a bronze portrait head of Johnson, presenting him as an Arno Breker-esque incarnation of that flamboyant, radical conservatism which first declared itself in the late seventies.
Laing’s transition to a more representational style of sculpture took several years. In 1973 the US market for his abstract sculptures virtually vanished when his dealer, Richard Feigen, ended his contract with him. The immediate and private co-ordinates of married life - difficult at that time to sustain because of economic pressure - pushed Laing further towards traditions of realism. He immersed himself in an extended study of his wife through a lengthy portrait bust series which ran from the visored ‘Rock Drill’-esque “Galina I” in 1973 to “Galina X” in 1978. The epiphany of the Royal Artillery Memorial had indicated to him that vanguardist models of history - ones of rapid and continuing innovation that broke with historical instances - could be problematic. Laing was prompted by this changed vision of history to embark upon an eclectic, post-modern re-examination of twentieth century figurative styles in sculpture. He reworked the ideas of Archipenko, Epstein (of the pre1914 mechanistic, ‘Rock Drill’ persuasion), Brancusi, Picasso and Gonzalez. On the mid seventies, he said: ‘I found myself running through the history of twentieth century sculpture’.(footnote 4) The scale and subject was intimate, but the ‘Galina’ series was expansive with meaning: it provides a gauge of more than just Laing’s oscillations in sculptural influence. The cloche hat of ‘Galina 11’ (1973), is at once a citation of that height of retro-fashion, Biba’s headwear, as well as being a meditation on Julio Gonzalez’s sheetmetal relief, ‘The Hat’ (1929). A smooth and minimally featured head, coded by Brancusi, has the second skin of a disguising stocking and is situated by its title in that structure of seventies infotainment horror around the topic of terrorism as a ‘Hijacker’ (1978).
By 1977-78 Laing had begun to cast his own bronzes under the patriarchal eye of George Mancini who acted as a link to that golden age of Edwardian sculpture which he increasingly came to admire. At the time of their collaboration, Mancini was supervising the restoration of Alfred Gilbert’s ‘Eros’ (1886). Through the intervention of architect Michael Laird, in 1978, Laing began a series of public sculptural commissions, beginning with the ‘Frieze of the Wise and Foolish Virgins’ (1978). Here a forceful file of more natural (but still helmeted) Galina-types as Wise Virgins are set over against the bizarre, mismanaged bodies of the Foolish Virgins (who include in their ranks the contemporary New York new-wave singer Patti Smith). If there is a break in these civic works it comes after this frieze which breathes the air of the then current Neue Sachlichkeit revival. Jagger’s awesome example, together with enrolment into the métier of bronze working, is (arguably) only fully realised by Laing with ‘The Fountain of Sabrina’ (1980) where, like Gilbert’s ‘Eros’, he intended to animate a figure with the energy of flight. Later, Laing further explored this theme with his virtuoso ‘Axis Mundi’ (1991).
In this last decade a vivacious realism has been used by him to establish a degree of verisimilitude in his portrait heads. This can be linked to what in the late nineteenth century, in relation to the ‘New Sculpture’ of Leighton and Gilbert, was described as neo-florentin style. Some of Laing’s works, like ‘Portrait of Maersk Mckinney Moller’ (1991) and ‘Portrait of Alexander Goulandris’ (1992), make an imaginary contract with that eighteenth century ‘Grand Style’ of civic humanism which flourished in Britain and France in the work of Houdon and Reynolds; others, such as ‘Portrait of Nicola Kinloch’
(1992) and ‘Portrait of Michael Findlay’ (1992), develop from the intimate, late nineteenth century, low relief portrait plaques of Augustus Saint Gaudens, who sculpted the ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’ panel (1887). These are all historicist strategies and Laing uses them freely. Yet, like Peter Greenaway or the later R.B. Kitaj, he is capable of telescoping complex cultural semantics inside the skin of ‘tradition’, thereby renewing the powers of modern allegory.
1 Richard Hamilton, ‘Urbane Image’, LivingArts, vol.1, no. 2 (1963), pp. 44-55.
2 Gerald Laing interviewed by David Mellor, April 1993.