‘I DON’T WANT TO PRODUCE WORK that is a pleasant distraction, then you move on to something else. I would actually like it to … stop their day. To make it an encounter,’ comments artist Marcus Harvey. And, without a doubt, that’s what his art has done since Myra (1995), his portrait of Myra Hindley, made up from duplications of a child’s handprint, brought him to public attention in Sensation, the seminal 1997 YBAs’ (Young British Artists) exhibition at the Royal Academy. Love them or hate them, though, Harvey’s paintings and sculptures, referencing pop culture and public icons, and often questioning national identity and social consciousness within a historic context, invariably provoke comment.

Inselaffe, his largest public UK exhibition to date, currently at the Jerwood Gallery, is no different. Harvey says that it is a portrait of his own culture – ‘proud and heroic, and also queasily guilty’. The title comes from a German word, meaning ‘island monkey’, which Harvey first came across while working for a German chef who used it to insult his staff. It’s a ‘specifically derogatory German term for the English or the British,’ Harvey explains, adding, ‘one assumes “island monkey” means small-minded, ignorant, ball-scratching animals, very insular looking, very absorbed with their own lump of rock.’

Certainly, the work included in this exhibition focuses very much on Britain as an island – as seen in the huge paintings, featuring great expanses of inky sea, the White Cliffs of Dover looming above it or ships overburdened with cargo traversing it. It also takes more than just a poke at British identity and culture, sometimes in a very uncomfortable, squirm-in-one’s seat kind of way.

Often darkly sardonic, Harvey’s largely bronze or ceramic sculptures, in particular, for the most part parody familiar public figures in our distant and more recent past. Maggie Thatcher features prominently in a very cartoonish and extremely sexualized manner in many pieces. Similarly, in others, Tony Blair, Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler vie with objects and icons important to our cultural identity, such as footballs, police helmets, Blue Peter and Thomas the Tank Engine.

There’s what seems to be more than a nod to the title sequence of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in Foot in the Sky (2016), one of Harvey’s large ‘two-and-a-half dimensional’ paintings, in which a giant foot hovers over a photographic expanse of water. Here, as in many of the other paintings exhibited, Harvey has developed its surface, encrusting it with found objects that have a ‘very specific nature’, which make the work seem more than a painting, but less than a sculpture. He thus challenges our spatial reality; a fact that he further builds upon by incorporating photography into his art, giving it an almost hyper-reality and depth that’s strangely cinematic. This is particularly evident in the predominantly black-and-white paintings Albus (2009) and Ghost Ship (2016). Such work brings to mind the matte painted backdrops used by director Alfred Hitchcock in so many of his films – The Birds (1963), for example – imbuing them with that almost surreal quality that makes their cinematography so distinctive.

In explaining this merging of techniques, Harvey says he feels a ‘huge conflict and friction’ between the truth that a photograph can offer and that which a painting does. Years ago, he wouldn’t have even contemplated using inkjet prints with paint, as he does in several of the works included in Inselaffe, but he found that ‘using paint to imitate photography lost credibility because it doesn’t liberate paint to do what it needs to do’. Both paint and photography are ‘vital mediums’ for Harvey, and thus bringing them together in a painting and developing ‘the extreme sculptural qualities of the paint feels like a way forward,’ he says.

There’s a great humour to be found in Harvey’s art which sometimes seems at war with the darkness prevalent in his subject matter. In one of our favourite pieces, The Virgin (Maggie) (2012), a very brightly painted, almost savagely caricatured pantomime dame of a Thatcher suckles two babies, one black, one white, at her exposed breasts, while two birds, a parrot and what could be a vulture (or a dodo) perch on her head. The result is a sculpture that reminds us of Helena Bonham-Carter’s Red Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). It also brings to mind empire (a subject tackled in several of Harvey’s paintings), as Thatcher bears more than a passing resemblance to Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, although it’s an Elizabeth more in keeping with Cate Blanchett’s film version.

Inselaffe is an extremely interesting exhibition on many levels. It’s not a romantic or sentimental examination of Britishness, but rather something more raw, savage and vibrant. It is also particularly relevant, given its timing: although coincidental, the exhibition opened just a few short weeks after the referendum and the shock of Brexit. In this context, the questioning of what it is to be British, of our national, political and cultural identity, surely couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.

In the end, whether one likes Harvey’s work is largely immaterial: it’s thought provoking, raises many questions and seemingly incites extreme reactions and emotions in its audience.

And, isn’t that what art should do?

Inselaffe runs until 16 October 2016 at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings


A version of this article appears on the Jerwood Gallery website.


Also of interest: ‘The ‘peerless pier’ – Hastings wins RIBA Stirling prize 2017‘; ‘Everything comes from the Egg: Stephen Turner’s vision‘; ‘The imaginary becomes real – In the Light of Surrealism #2 and Inverse Reflection‘; ‘More than just words – The Jane Eyre Project‘; The hyper-reality of Marcus Harvey’s world – Inselaffe





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