Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise

The Serpentine Galleries have two new shows that each in their own way contemplate the abuse of power. Leon Golub is the elder statesman of this type of political art, though the phrase theis a well known Jenny Holzer work.

Leon Golub, Mercenaries IV, 1980

The Serpentine Galleries have two new shows that each in their own way contemplate the abuse of power. Leon Golub is the elder statesman of this type of political art, though the phrase the Abuse of Power comes as no surprise is a well known Jenny Holzer work. Bite your Tongue, the Golub show, looks back at fifty years of work from his early figuration that verges on abstraction to the late large works on un-stretched canvas that are often brutally figurative. These very flat works contrast to the wild colourful sculptures and assemblages of the Cameroon-born, Belgium-based artist Pascale Marthine Tayou who is showing in London for the first time.

Leon Golub, detail of L'Homme de Palmyre, 1962

Golub's early works have a bit of a Henry Moore feel to the form and shape of the bodies in paintings like L'Homme de Palmyre (1962, lacquer on canvas) and Colossal Torso II (1959, lacquer on canvas) and are certainly the most beautifully painted. There is a real feel for the pigment moving about on the surface of the canvas and you get the feeling he enjoyed making them. They aim for a universal human, and are very positive, if not joyous, but that is the last time we feel he might have smiled.

Leon Golub, detail of Colossal Torso II , 1959

Golub was an American and the Vietnam War played out deeply and darkly in his work. Soldiers start to appear, menacing in scale and in what they are doing to each other and their victims. Other works in the show look at the rise of paramilitary forces in the American sphere of influence (especially in Latin America) like his Mercenaries II (section I) from 1975. These are large works often on irregularly shaped bits of canvas, and are thinly painted. They are almost like illustrations or washed out posters, but their scale is nothing compared to the almost road side billboard scaled works from the early 1980's.

Leon Golub, Interrogation III, 1981

There are four of these beasts installed in the main room of the Serpentine and they barely fit in (photographs do not really give you the proper scale). They are also certainly the best of the overtly political works. That they are so big, that they loom over us, that they bear down on the viewer and force themselves into the whole of our view makes the content all the more frightening. Here men with guns (Mercenaries IV, 1980) look like they want to kill anyone, everyone, and they are filled with blood lust, or they torture a naked woman (Interrogation III, 1981) or dump a body into the boot of a car (White Squad IV, El Salvador, 1983). We are all just dead meat for them, or soon to be dead meat. The colour of dried blood as a background also unsettles the viewer. These are not pretty pictures and we want to look away. Golub is very successful at keeping our gaze, making us look, but somehow they feel dated.

Leon Golub, White Squad IV, El Salvador, 1983

In the terrible world of Jihadi John, where psychopathic killers can post videos of their depravity in the name of a deity (I refuse to watch them but am aware of their content) , paintings of killers for money or politics almost seem quaint. But that is the danger of political art, once seen from a distance we have to look at such work without the heat, and only a very few stand up as good work in themselves. I much prefer the art of his wife, Nancy Spero, whose feminist take on history has held up much better, and the text works of Holzer that are full of cool detached anger.

So who knows how the work of Pascale Marthine Tayou will be seen in 30 years? It certainly is more fun and I would say much more clever, so it is likely to be seen that way by future viewers. He presents us with open works that critique certain aspects of the modern global village, and identity, and how we are all interconnected and affect each other. The interesting thing is that he does so in a way that the works, and the show as a whole, can still be interpreted by the viewer. Golub lectures us, while Marthine Tayou tells us a joke or at least tries to make us smile.

Pascale Marthine Tayou, Boomerang Christianity, Boomerang Islam, Boomerang Judaism , 2015

In several pieces he conflates many of the worlds major religions that so often have been at war with each other over the centuries (and still are today). His Boomerang Christianity, Boomerang Islam, Boomerang Judaism (2015, painted wood) sees three large boomerangs stacked on top of each other. What you throw out there comes back at you, is an obvious reading, but then they are also very beautiful objects and their minimalism is very appealing in what is a wonderfully crazy show. David Crossing the Moon (2015, neon) places a star of David, the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent moon on top of each other, they overlap and at first the image is almost illegible. Yet as the symbols take shape, the glow of the three different colours of neon almost merge again into a whole.

Pascale Marthine Tayou, David Crossing the Moon, 2015

He has also made a lot of site-specific works for the Serpentine, brightly coloured plastic drinking straws have been joined together to form a cloud that greets the viewer at the entrance, and every work seems to collide into the one next to it. There is no visual space for the eye to rest and its fullness, which at first is a bit off putting if you have just come from the Golub show, slowly starts to tickle you.

Installation detail

One large installation features a huge wall papered with photographs with small glass sculptures scattered in front of it (above), and it is placed in a part of the show that was so dense, I could not even find the tile of the work. But I loved it, as well as the much quieter and visually dramatic Coton Tige (2015, wooden stake, chicken wire, fabric, cotton wool) which is another cloud that hung above our heads. There were works on the floor, on the walls, and in the sky, its terrific.

Pascale Marthine Tayou, Coton Tige, 2015

Both of these shows are so not London. They are not sleek and minimal they are not pure concept and a nonchalant stance, they are both hot with anger or vitality and that makes them a real must see.

Leon Golub: Bite your Tongue

Serpentine Gallery

Pascale Marthine Tayou: Boomerang

Serpentine Sackler Gallery

March 4 - May 17, 2015

All photographs courtesy of the author

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