Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A Fascination With Modern Icons

A TRADITIONALIST is, at least in his imagination, someone at loggerheads with his own time. British artist Gerald Laing, though he was part of the Pop Art tendency of the 1960's (his painting ``Brigitte Bardot'' is typical of that time) reverted in the '70s to an increasingly die-hard traditionalism.

Sometimes traditionalism is the result of timidity. It is as if traditionalists are scared to face or admit their own time. They settle - like those who persist in believing that the earth is flat - for an obstinate ignorance. They can't bear the present. They hanker for the past.

About these ads

Laing cannot really be described as one of these. He knows well enough what he does not choose to be. He consciously opts out of ``contemporary art'' as he calls it.

As he has explained in a rather old-fogyish interview with an art critic called Giles Auty (in the catalog of a recent retrospective at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh) he links ``contemporary art'' with ``feverish marketing initiatives and ethical vacuity.''

He goes further, describing ``our current problems'' as ``those of a technocratic consumer society which has lost its religious and social controls and is consequently unstable.''

It is not easy to disagree with this caustic generalization - until one starts to give it a second thought. Then it sounds suspiciously like cliche.

Contemporary art is enormously various. Much of it is not ethically vacuous or feverishly marketable. Much of it runs actually counter to the technocratic and consumerist. It is even surprisingly often that something religious (though often privately so) underpins what can certainly be described as modern art.

If a deliberately reactionary artist like Laing bases his art on sweeping dismissal of even the solid and deeply felt in today's art, then he is quixotically old fashioned.

But Laing is a strange mixture. In many ways he has become as typical a ``Post-Modernist'' in his appropriation of past styles, as he was once a Pop artist playing with the surfaces and icons of the consumer society. Either way, he hasn't actually escaped from the fashionable. Although his change to traditionalism in the '70s has been called a ``volte-face,'' a retrospective look at his work shows that style change alone does not necessarily mean basic change. The underlying promptings of his art are in many ways the same as ever: His fascination for modern icons is, for example, as much a part of his conventional portrait sculpture in the 1980s and '90s as it was in the Pop '60s.

About these ads

Laing's bronze of Andy Warhol (1990) just happens to link these two ends of his career in another way.

Warhol was one of the epitomes of Pop art, acting out a dream of empty-headed consumerism, assuming moral vacuity as a lifestyle that eventually became indistinguishable from his persona. Nineteenth-century portraiture, on which Laing's bust is stylistically based, was aimed at a kind of idealization - a presentation of a particular human being as a symbol meant to outlive the brevity of a mortal life span.

Warhol presented himself as a kind of shallow art form, transiently limited to his own time. Laing invests him in this old-fashioned bust with heroic iconhood. His Warhol is made to last.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.