FINE ART: Never Mind the Boar’s Head

Three British artists’ work is both refined and punk

Chuck Twardy

Rock purists will instantly source the title of the exhibition at UNLV's Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, England's Dreaming.

"There is no future/ In England's dreaming," Johnny Rotten cawed in the Sex Pistols' signature anthem, "God Save the Queen." Of the show's three British artists, Paul Hosking, Simon Periton and Neil Rumming, only Periton, born in 1964, is old enough to have been a teenage "moron, a potential H-bomb" in the Pistols' heyday. Hosking and Rumming were tots.

We'll let time judge if Rotten was right, but Hosking, Periton and Rumming, stable-mates at the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in Los Angeles, offer conflicting evidence. They prove that the 1970s held promise of a brisk and vital British art scene that arose in the '90s, stoked in part by advertising mogul and collector Charles Saatchi, who brought artists such as Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread to the fore. Still, each in his way unfolds a grim subtext.

Hosking somewhat recalls Hirst, who made his fame reminding us of untidy subtexts. Instead of Hirst's preserved sections or rotting parts of animals, Hosking offers animal effigies, suspended and twisting as if on meat hooks, and sheathed in mirror-ball tiles. "Disco Boar" (2004) spins languidly in a corner of the gallery, a half-pig prosaically strapped to a seatless chair, scattering reflections. In the balcony, the two-headed "Dancing Bears" (2004) performs a similar service, colored ribbons dangling from its nose rings. These are two edges, meat and merriment, of history's sorry animal husbandry, apparently in service of nothing more noble than a night at a dance club.

The all-seeing eye in the center of Rumming's "The Majestic Lodge" (2003) might know something about this. Not the grand gazer of the American dollar's pyramid but rather the painted peeper of a fashion model, meticulously rendered, it anchors a lush arrangement. Cartoony candles cool before it and layers of marbling overwhelm the arched vault from which its glowing triangle emerges, all within a vaguely Asian, flame-like outline that resolves into a crowned lion at the top. England, indeed, is dreaming if the yellow, X-ray skeleton inside this essential emblem of British royalty means anything.

A similarly stylized candle centers an hourglass form in Rumming's "The Measure of Fear" (2003). This one, though, is lit and its thin trails of smoke curl behind two large crystals, each with a menacing, photo-realist cobra inside. These candles have the pop-cult, Ye Olde England resonance of a Harry Potter movie, and in both paintings they suggest a whimsical view of British history.

Periton presents yet another. Lace is not specifically British, of course, but something about it is essentially Victorian—lace curtains and doilies. Periton's large-scale cutouts put the lie to the gothic-tracery fineness of that age, and to satisfied frippery of all types. Instead of snowflake patterns, Periton's multilayered, loosely hanging sheets are asymmetric arrangements of squiggles, scrawled images and words, an anxious doodler's meeting notes. The under-layers, in different colors and shiny foils, echo the top layer, edging its lines and shifting as you move, casting complex shadow patterns on the wall.

The triptych "The Look of Love" (2004) comprises pairings of green, pink and blue under black, with gold foil lending a sheen that gives the composition a neon intensity. "Champagne Manifesto" mutes its tones with a vellum-like outer layer, and the colors occupy blocky regions below. You can spend all day trying to decipher images and words in these works, and in a way, you'd be indulging their subversive properties by doing so.

Organized by gallery curator Jerry Schefcik, England's Dreaming hardly constitutes a survey, or even a representative sample of contemporary British art. The work is, in some sense, very West Coast. But the show has a prickly core that is pure John Bull or, rather, John Lydon.

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