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If Everybody had an Ocean

Brian Wilson: An Art Exhibition

Tate St Ives



Apart from the comic-book style of Patrick Hughes who was active in Penwith in the 70s, art from Cornwall stayed locked in a modernist mindset for many years after Barbara Hepworth had died and Ben Nicholson moved away. Its inclination to seek out the remote, windswept places away from the tourists and products they brought with them, remained intact and unchallenged for several decades. This was entirely a reflection of the legacy of the modernist pursuit of pure form. As a consequence, Cornish art was not well disposed to respond to post-war popular culture as it emerged so emphatically across other parts of the US and UK.

But what would art from Cornwall have looked like if a generation of talented artists with a pop-sensibility had been working here? Or to put another way - and given that this show followed Art Now Cornwall - what might post-modern art from Cornwall look like? I couldn't help wondering if this consideration of the Beach Boys, and their brand of shiny East-coast Americana, would provide an answer.





Much Pop Art (e.g. Warhol, and Lichtenstein) is too obviously urban and industrial to have conceivably emanated from somewhere like Cornwall and most pop-music of the 60s was, similarly, a product of a strongly metropolitan culture. In contrast, the sunny, ‘oceanic’ sound of the Beach Boys, and the surfing imagery in their lyrics does seem to fit in a more obvious way with St Ives. But dig a bit deeper and it becomes apparent that the collection of art in this Tate Summer show was only obliquely connected with the 60s pop group. Instead it seemed easier to comprehend as being linked to Cornwall through its displaced location: through California, LA, and a particular West Coast feel and art-mentality. (It's difficult to describe what this is, but it has something to do with being casual, spacious, and atheoretical - in contrast to New York art that has tended, in contrast, to be more up-tight and hard-nosed).

This West coast mentality was epitomised by the 3 insouciant leaning sculptures by John McCracken: each a different colour, made using surf-board fibre-glass technologies. It was also apparent in the subtle Vija Celmins prints, shown in the murky light of the video room (Gallery 1), and the understatedly hip, pop-conceptual pastel drawings, swimming pool photographs and early concertina books of Ed Ruscha.

These three heavy-hitters, together with Al Ruppersberg (Gallery 5) were all artists of a similar vintage. Also included, however, were more contemporary artists from the West coast like Pae White, whose resin or acrylic block reflecting light onto the wall, was a highlight, as were Ken Price’s blobby pink ceramic sculpture, Roger Hiorn's car-engine covered in copper-sulphate crystals, and the remarkable Fred Tomasselli black painting/collage also under resin. (Hiorns also contributed suspended foam-extruding sculptures in the entrance hall).

British artists Peter Blake and Bridget Riley both with their own links to Cornwall, also put in an appearance, but it was really a show of American artists including those who are less well-known to UK audiences. This included Sister Corita Kent, who was a practising nun, and whose posters using appropriated text were widely visible across America during the sixties. She has subsequently become something of a cult figure and an influence on contemporary American artists.

Initially it was easy to feel sceptical about this show. Without even having seen it, I had persuaded myself that it was a highly contrived premise, that would result in an exhibition of off-the peg international art that would not connect with Cornwall in a meaningful way. I was pleased, though, to be proven wrong. There was a lot to look at and think about - lots of bangs for your bucks - in what was a physically dense yet conceptually diffuse exhibition. It was also a valuable opportunity to see art and artists that are only rarely shown anywhere in the UK.

Had there been any lingering doubts in my mind as I left, they were instantly expelled by the hauntingly beautiful strains of ‘God only knows’ playing outside in the rotunda.  Although I'm not a fan of the Beach Boys, this is one of only a handful of songs that provokes me to instant tears.



RW 26/5/07






nb the photos were taken during the installation of the show

James Turrell is another West Coast artist with an affinity with Cornwall (see forum: the ultimate act of philistinism?)

Why not respond to this show on the forum?