Montage with a message
(Monday 03 March 2008)
Uncertified Documents: Peter Kennard
Pump House Gallery, London SW11
CHRISTINE LINDEY is moved by a striking collection of ‘photographic sentences’ by long-time political designer and teacher Peter Kennard.
LIBERAL democracies shout of freedom, but they control the power of radical art partly by ignoring it and partly by assimilating it, not least into the rarified context of commercial galleries.
Socialist artists have long grappled with this problem and the linked one of how to survive economically.
Peter Kennard has made his living mostly from teaching. When he was younger, he shunned the gallery system because it was ideologically impure. He now believes that it is good for the public, particularly the young, to see how his work was made.
Yet he still opposes the mainstream. He has chosen to display more than 30 years of his work at the Pump House because this is a non-commercial gallery in Battersea Park, London, a venue likely to attract mostly locals and passers-by.
A free broadsheet forms an important part of this exhibition. With an anti-war poster on one side and an informative interview on the other, it offers an astute discussion on art, socialism and possible ways in which to resist the power of the state and conventional patronage.
In it, Kennard says that the exhibition is “about communicating social and political ideas to an interested audience, but not necessarily an art audience.”
In the 1960s, Kennard studied at the Slade, a school then dominated by abstract expressionism. His involvement in the anti-Vietnam war movement led to frustrated attempts to link his political commitment to his painting. His discovery of the photomontages of Heartfield, Rodchenko and Soviet Constructivist ideas gave him the break-through that he needed.
In the early 1970s, he began to make photomontages for the left press where he valued collaborating with non-artists as part of a production process.
He explains: “It is like being a journalist, but, instead of words, I was constructing sentences from photographs; montage is about opening up what is silent in society.”
He later went on to work for progressive organisations, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Greater London Council, New Statesman, Pluto books and the Stop the War Coalition, often for free or for very little.
Kennard’s work is not made to be seen in the contemplative context of art galleries. Designed for book jackets, posters, postcards, magazines and newspapers, it aims to create a quick reaction in the often inattentive viewer. Yet his powerful visual imagination, combined with a clear understanding of social and political realities, has produced montages whose content often transgress the specific issues for which they were made and convey universal meanings.
Selecting his images with precision, he combines them in deceptively simple ways to produce devastating political and social comment. For example, the poster in which a cruise missile breaks against the CND logo.
The images often originate in a response to what people say. The montage of Thatcher‘s face superimposed on Queen Victoria’s state portrait was a reaction to that prime minister’s call for a return to Victorian values.
When Thatcher’s government sited the missile base in Constable country, Kennard’s riposte was Hay-Wain with Cruise missiles, 1980, in which the cart in Constable’s famous painting is loaded with cruise missiles instead of hay.
Many of the original working montages are hung alongside the resulting printed publications.
For example, we see small cut-out photographs of cruise missiles and a tiny gas-masked cart boy pasted on to a postcard of the Constable painting. Next to it is the double-page spread of a magazine in which this image first appeared as an illustration to an article by EP Thompson condemning the siting of cruise missiles in Britain. In turn, we see Kennard’s image printed as a postcard in aid of the anti-cruise campaign.
The 2003 demonstration against the Iraq war marked the beginning of his current collaboration with Cat Picton Phillips, a younger artist who works with digital imagery.
She initiated him into the mysteries of working on a scanner rather than with manual montage techniques. He encouraged her to “put some sense of physicality back into that pixelated medium” by dropping dust, oil or blood on to the scanner.
In 2005, they created their War on War room at the East group exhibition, Norwich. There, with a scanner and printer, they made anti-war posters and invited the public to create their own. A petrol pump becomes a gun as bullets fly from its nozzle – war for oil visualised in one hard-hitting image. …
Exhibition runs until March 30. Entry free. Ring (020) 7350-0523 for more information.