Cascading over the Decades
Derek Boshier: New Works, Recurring Themes by Chris Stephens
For over 50 years Derek Boshier’s art has been dominated by two fundamental themes. One has been a concern with the relationship between individual lives and broader culture and society; the other is about the use and function of images. Over the years, both have found expression in different media, both are dominant in the works in the present exhibition, made in recent years.
Boshier was launched to the public with his ground-breaking contribution to ‘Image in Revolt’, the exhibition at London’s Grabowski Gallery that he shared with fellow Royal College of Art graduate Frank Bowling in October 1962. There Boshier presented paintings made in his final year at the College, in late 1961 and early 1962. Compositionally fragmented and using a wide range of techniques from broad, gestural strokes of paint to cartoon-like figures, cars and other subjects, these works were most notable for the inclusion of such signifiers of the American consumer culture that had recently arrived in Britain as striped toothpaste and the logos of Pepsi-Cola and Kellogs cornflakes. With this body of work Boshier – alongside contemporaries like David Hockney, Allen Jones, Pauline Boty and Peter Phillips – secured the new dominance of what they dubbed ‘Pop’ art. With Peter Blake’s, the work of Boshier, Boty and Philips was held up as a youthful, radical departure in the BBC’s legendary film ‘Pop Goes the Easel’, directed by Ken Russell. Boshier’s fascination with ubiquitous corporate identities was driven by his reading of critiques of the psychologically influenced advertising techniques being imported to Britain from the USA. Most significantly, he cited the impact of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders in which the author proposed that modern advertising had eroded individual identities, an idea captured by Boshier’s recurrent image of multiple, vulnerable, identi-kit male figures tumbling through space. More broadly, this group of early paintings addressed contemporary issues and anxieties – the space race, the political hostility between the USA and Cuba, fear of nuclear destruction – in relation to the past. To do so, Boshier used a range of visual languages, challenging established hierarchies of representation, including flags, maps and diagrams alongside more conventional imagery. Thus, the America whose consumer culture was enveloping Britain was also the new Empire, engulfing parts of the world and threatening humankind through it’s nuclear stand-off and the race to control outer space with the USSR. The conflation of the Special K logo and the retro rockets of an inter-continental ballistic missile exemplified the artist’s visual critique of contemporary culture.
If some of those early works dealt overtly with international geo-politics, many of them engaged more obliquely with broader questions of cultural change and it’s impact on individual identities. Central to this was the issue of how images functioned to not just represent but also to affect such change. So it was that, having travelled for a while, the paintings that succeeded these politically charged Pop works abstract, dealing with the purely visual effects of illusionistic forms set in tension with actual three-dimensional objects. From there, Boshier moved on to make a series of videos which, using collage techniques, combined drawing, photography and moving image to play with visual ambiguities alongside contemporary cultural concerns. Boshier was, then, one of the first artists to employ the full range of available media to explore and express his ideas. Consistently, those ideas were concerned with the real world and with real people’s lives; he was, in that sense, a realist. Indeed, a key project was an exhibition he curated entitled ‘Lives’.
It is unsurprising that an artist who so perceptively and presciently addressed the negative impact of the new forms of advertising and their promotion of a corporate culture at the expense of individual identity should become fascinated by the impact of digital technology and, specifically, the ubiquitous intrusion of the mobile phone. If American-style adverts could be seen as the new opium of the masses in 1960s London, then the perpetual availability of virtual imagery obstructs the appreciation of the actual reality that confronts the viewer and on the nature of the images that seem to proliferate and predominate in the digital realm. Thus, a sequence of sublime landscapes – the Guadalupe Mountains, a snowy mountain lake, the pyramids in the Egyptian desert – are obscured behind clusters of mobile phones showing scenes of violence, money and pornography. If personal identities and the relationships between empowered individuals and society had been eroded by the influence of advertising and corporate power in the 1960s, now they are similarly under attack from the power and unavoidable presence of this virtual world. Boshier has always been fascinated by the role and nature of images so it is unsurprising that he should so engage with a new culture in which voyeurism and vicarious experience seems, at times, more dominant than actual experience. In fact, each work of this series presents a double layer of image and critique because the underlying, main images are intended to suggest the artificial ways in which places, landscape and cultures are depicted in such glossy magazines as National Geographic. So, in fact, it is not as simple as a real world obscured by a virtual one as the former is, itself, a construct as divorced from lived reality as that on the phone screens. Again, with this series Boshier returned to a recurring concern which is the juxtaposition of two forms of contrasting imagery. In 1972, he exhibited in London under the the title ‘Two – A Duality’ and repeatedly he has made work based on contrasting dualities in either subject matter or style. So, for example, in Cheetah Mathematicus the coloured vitality of the big cat is set against the duo-tone geometric representations of a person.
An unavoidable extension of Boshier’s obsession with imagery and it’s role in the relationship between individuals and the wider culture is the world of celebrity. After all, one of his earliest paintings was entitled I Wonder what my heroes Think of the Space Race and brought together such culturally diverse figures as Buddy Holly and Abraham Lincoln. Those were the years of rock and roll, and civil rights. For a time, such was the buzz around the young British Pop artists that he, himself, became something of a celebrity. Public figures have appeared at different times, in different ways, in Boshier’s art but David Bowie has occupied a particular place in his life. Boshier worked with Bowie in the late 1970s, designing the cover for his 1979 album Lodger, and the two remained friends, Bowie incorporating a Boshier drawing into the cover of Let’s Dance (1983). Spending time with such a global superstar, Boshier noted the contrast between his friend in private and the public persona that Bowie the performer could switch on and off as required. Celebrity was a subject of interest but, more particularly, perhaps, Bowie embodied an even more complex and fluid set of multiple identities. In a series of paintings made after Bowie’s unexpected death in 2016 Boshier explored both the multiplicity of Bowie’s identities and relations between them and other, historical cultural figures. So, in David Bowie Twice we see two contrasting images of Bowie, one a grave, suited figure from a photograph taken in the musician’s last years when he would be occasionally photographed walking through New York in cognito, the other the Pierrot-like persona adopted for the video of the single Ashes to Ashes. In another work, two images of Bowie from the early 70s – both based on iconic photographs of the performer – flank a portrait of Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road who Boshier noticed Bowie had cited as the key influence on his development as an artist. Finally, Bowie is painted as he was photographed in 1973, wearing Kansai Yamamoto’s structured bodysuit for his Aladdin Sane tour, alongside Teresa Cornelys, an 18th century singer and business woman, dubbed the ‘empress of pleasure’ and known for presenting more masculine characteristics than feminine. She was, to Boshier, ‘the 18th century David Bowie in that she was very influential in the culture, she influenced fashion, music and general tastes’. While Cornelys offers an 18th century equivalent to Bowie, in David Bowie Twice Boshier presents behind the main figures a series of black and white images, derived from his own recent videos, of current B-Boying (a development of break dancing) relating to Bowie’s performativity to contemporary culture. So, this sequence of paintings considers Bowie’s constructed identities in relation to his own mortality, to his influences and to historical precedence. Playing off the power of iconic photographs, Boshier seeks to position culturally one of the great performers of his time.
The power of images and the various ways in which they can function has been a long running concern for Derek Boshier. In his Bowie paintings, he highlights the way in which photography and imaginative self-management combined to create multiple identities for a single performer. From the earliest days, Boshier has embraced a non-hierarchical approach to the appreciation and use of images but that is not to say that he has been unaware of the potentially deleterious effect of those images. In the early 1960s, the rising sun was replaced in one painting by the Pepsi logo; in 2014, he addressed the ways in which contemporary spectators cease to see the world around them, in all it’s sublime wonder, as they are absorbed by the depersonalized, virtual experience of readily available on-line pornography and violence. Never dogmatic or preachy, Boshier’s art now combines, as it did fifty-five years ago, a sharp, politically aware intelligence with an acerbic and very human wit. To conclude appropriately, we might join with David Bowie in his response to a book that in 2015 brought together Boshier’s artistic achievement: ‘your work really cascades over the decades and is utterly real and convincing. You really are a master, cush!!’
Chris Stephens 2017