Review of exhibit of works by Jamie Reid

"Peace is Tough" -- a touring exhibition of works by the graphic artist Jamie Reid, best known for his pioneering work for the punk band the Sex Pistols -- came to Artificial, a gallery in New York City, for a few weeks in September and October 1997. (After leaving New York, the exhibit was bound for Tokyo and then Europe.) I found it necessary to see the exhibit twice, and to stay for a long time each visit, to fully appreciate its depth and diversity. The exhibit contained (in chronological order) the following:

about a dozen images from The Suburban Press, the clearly situationist-influenced zine Reid published between 1970 and 1974, and Leaving The Twentieth Century, the first anthology of writings by the situationists ever published in English (it was a 1974 collaboration between Reid and ex-situationist Christopher Gray). One of the best and yet rarely reproduced pieces from this period is entitled "Towards an Architecture of the Impossible"; it both reads and looks like a publication by the utopian radicals of the Lettrist International. Another superb and exuberantly situationist-influenced image from this period is a collage of bits of images depicting all the dreary things that concern us in our everyday lives -- food, work, cars, money, and the city -- that is very dense at the bottom, but is lighter and made up of images of the sun, birds, air planes in flight and other images of Utopia, even the word "hope," at the top;
a ton of Sex Pistols things, including: a selection of huge, colorful, and exquisitely printed reproductions of several of the classic Pistols images from 1976 and 1977 (a steal at $350 each!); about a dozen original not-for-sale Sex Pistols graphics, most of which have been widely reproduced and were familiar to me, some of which were not (including an old record sleeve for Mexican pistolero music upon which Reid had put cutout block letters that spelled out "Los Pistoleros del Sexo"); and three huge wooden panels from the early 1980s upon which Reid made collages of all kinds of materials, both original and reproduced, concerning the band, their songs and their career (these materials included a Glitterbest cheque for 2,500 pounds and signed by Malcolm McLaren that bounced when Reid tried to cash it in 1979);
about two dozen posters, record sleeves and other images Reid made between 1980 and the present for radical political causes, punk bands such as the Dead Kennedys, or shows of his own work or of the work of others, including the Situationist International (Reid designed the poster advertising the 1989 Institute of Contemporary Art show in London, a gesture which seems to confirm others' claims that the situationists were a big influence on Reid and consequently on the Sex Pistols). One of the most significant of the miscellaneous images -- it was the one selected by Reid to go on the posters advertising "Peace is Tough" -- was originally designed as the jacket art for Greil Marcus' book of writings on punk (originally entitled In the Fascist Bathroom but changed to Ranters, Ravers and Crowd Pleasers by a cowardly publishing house). Reid's artwork -- which includes a picture of John Wayne upon which Reid placed lipstick (a reference to Greil's book, Lipstick Traces, which is about the situationists' influence on the Sex Pistols) and a button saying "Peace is Tough" -- was dumped along with the original title;
about two dozen traditional-looking and very hippie-ish paintings, posters and printed tapestries that depict Celtic, mystical and other "shamanarchistic" visions (Reid is a spiritual-minded Welsh). I suppose it is terribly ironic and all that one of Reid's images (it was included in the show) proclaims "Never trust a hippie!" but I'd much prefer Reid's "backsliding" into hippie-ish mysticism to the Sex Pistols' head-long rush into cultural insignificance. The simple reason for this is that hippie-ish mysticism has enabled Reid to do something that neither John Lydon nor Malcolm McLaren has done since the 1980s, which is stay in meaningful touch with the politically-engaged musical subcurrents that trace their inspiration (if not their sound, look or style) to punk. Reid is an avid fan of and has worked with several European electronic dance bands.

Not only did the "Peace is Tough" exhibit provide a lot to look at and a lot to think about -- for example, can the ideas of the situationists be used again to produce effects as explosive as those produced by the "situationist punk band" the Sex Pistols? is there really a relationship between shamanism and anarchy? -- but the exhibit's curator arranged the items mentioned above within the existing space of the gallery in a very satisfying way. Perhaps a better way of saying this would be that the gallery space itself is rich with possibilities, and that the curator of the exhibit utilized the space well when the exhibit was installed. All the Sex Pistols stuff was exhibited on the ground floor, which is a typical gallery space with high-ceilings, white walls and white lights. While the shamanarchy stuff was evenly distributed between the ground floor and the basement, all of the pre-Sex Pistols stuff and all of the miscellaneous post-1980 political stuff was in the basement. Made out of brick, cosy, smaller and much less brightly lit than the main space, and filled with little pockets in which you could sit down and linger for a while, the space in the basement would have been fun to hang out in even if it wasn't filled with great art work! The total effect of the arrangement was that you were hit with the Sex Pistols stuff as soon as you walked in the door, and so you got "it" -- the Sex Pistols TWENTY YEARS LATER -- over with right away. If you stayed long enough to realize that there was a whole second floor of stuff downstairs (not every visitor did, and so some got a literally superficial view of the exhibit), you could descend into and move around in the "underground" source and inspiration for Reid's work for the Sex Pistols. It sounds corny, but the "psychogeographical" effect was undeniable.

Underneath, say, a 1993 poster in which Reid pasted the phrase "DAMN THEM ALL" over pictures of British royalty from Henry VIII to Diana of Wales and Queen Elizabeth -- the "damn them all" phrase refers to and extends the infamous Sex Pistols detournement of GOD SAVE THE QUEEN -- you could sit in a comfortable and yet slightly disorienting space, and collect your thoughts and impressions, relatively undisturbed, for as long as wanted. Few visitors did. Most of them had wandered into the gallery because of its location (in the trendy "SoHo" neighborhood), not because they knew Reid's work and had heard about the exhibit (it was pretty poorly advertised); most visitors moved through the wine cellar-like basement space quickly and efficiently, without sitting down once. In all the hours I sat there on two different days, no one joined me. There were passersby, of course; but no one sat down and stayed on their own. The absence of a social scene within the gallery was telling, even appropriate to the exhibit itself.

In those hours in that space, I mostly pondered something that Jamie Reid himself said in an interview segment in a videotape that played on the ground floor of the exhibit. He said -- or, if you will, he re-iterated the classic situationist theme -- that the challenge to the modern artist is not to create, but to use what has already been created. This would seem to be a reduction or a narrowing of the scope of moder art, but it isn't. To find a way of using what has already been created -- and there is a lot of all kinds of things that have been and continue to be created by this wasteful society -- to say something that is really new, you have to widen your field of awareness to the point that you can see what is NOT being done, and what COULD BE done, with these creations. This clearly isn't easy. What makes Jamie Reid a great artist is that he sees what could be done, but isn't being done, with both the images and the productive forces that made these images possible. Lesser artists see the aesthetic usefulness of appropriating mass-produced images and the techniques of juxtaposition and collage, or they see that the very proliferation of images in contemporary society says something about this society's fundamental possibilities and limits, but they don't bring these two visions together into a single coherent perspective in the way that Jamie Reid does. By consistently making emotionally compelling and socially relevant art out of such unlikely and potentially hackneyed things as collages of appropriated images, Jamie Reid dares his viewers to believe that constructing an architecture of the impossible is not only possible, but necessary as well.

[Click around to compare situationist-inspired art from May 1968 with Jamie Reid's work with the Sex Pistols.]



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