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POP! Art in a Changing Britain at The Pallant House Gallery

1 March 2018 | Sian Brett

Over the years, Pallant House Gallery has been home to many exhibitions which focus on the Pop Art era. Their latest exhibition on the genre, POP! Art in a Changing Britain, draws together much of this work as well as delving deep into the galleries stores to curate a showcase of not only British Pop Art, but of how it was impacted by history, and impacted the world of art today.

Architect of the gallery Prof Sir Colin St. John (Sandy) Wilson donated his personal collection of Pop Art, which he spent his life building and developing through his friendships with the artists prominent in the movement. POP! is the first time that this collection of Pop Art has been displayed all together in one exhibition. For co-curator’s Claudia Millburn and Louise Weller it allowed them to choose from a treasure trove of seminal pieces, as well as receive exciting new loans, just for the exhibition.
 
The works feel inexplicably linked to the context in which they were created, enhanced by the timeline printed on the wall as you enter the exhibition, allowing you to make connections between the work on display and Britain at the time. It’s difficult to escape from the sense of the swinging 60’s when faced with Peter Blake’s The Beatles, or Claes Oldenburg’s London Knees. Despite this sense of the past, the work still feels incredibly relevant. Themes of mass media, celebrity culture and shifting political landscapes all inform the work and the artists behind it; and they are still common themes in modern society. The pop culture references in the pieces are a direct response to the rise of celebrity at the time, but when present day America is presided over by a reality TV show judge, it seems to also be suggestive of how pop culture has evolved. It’s not that the work exists outside of history, but rather informs where we are now.

Post War Britain feels inherent in the work. When faced with a British landscape blighted by the blitz and the horrors of Nazi Germany still hanging across Europe, it seems only right that the young artists of the time would develop an entirely new way to make and produce art, and that is what is being celebrated here.


Gerald Laing, Brigite Bardot, 1968
 
The sense of young artists as a collective is a key component to the exhibition – indeed many of the key artists of the Pop Art movement began as part of the Independent Group in the 1950s. Milburn and Weller were keen to express that the exhibition is not a comprehensive overview nor a history of Pop Art, but an examination of what Pop is. They argue that it’s a way of life, and a way of creating; a mentality that informs your work, rather than a movement with styles and rules to be adhered to. They even comment that although some of the work may not appear to be Pop Art at all, it’s influence on the movement, and the artists within it, is so crucial that it cannot be ignored.
 
A resistance movement from the bright young things of the art world, influenced by art schools changing their admission rules, Pop Art seemed to be a shift into something inclusive, exciting, anarchic. Yet where were the women? Jann Haworth is the sole female artist in the collection, represented by her work Cowboy. The piece not only highlights the male domination of the art world but also allows her to reclaim a space within it through her use of textiles and sculpture. It’s a powerful statement; the lone cowboy created by a lone woman. It’s particularly powerful when placed near the work of Peter Blake, Haworth’s ex-husband and co-creator of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, her role in which tends to be forgotten. In the case of the POP! exhibition, women are behind the scenes. Together, Milburn and Weller have carefully and deftly curated this celebration of work that marks a key point in British art history.


R.B Kitaj, Plays for Total Stakes, 1968 © The Estate of R B Kitaj
 
With 168 pieces on display across seven rooms, there’s not a blank wall in sight, and certainly not a moment to pause between pieces. But perhaps this is how it should be; the oversaturation of images was key to the Pop Art movement, and it feels right that this is how the work is viewed now. More than anything, what this exhibition demonstrates is that Pop Art was a revolutionary movement, and a shift among young artists of the time to forge their own way as they responded to the brave new world that was slowly emerging around them.
 
POP! Art in a Changing Britain is on at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 1TJ. The exhibition runs until 7 May, and you can find more information here.
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