You can’t accuse the Serpentine of relentlessly reciting liberal orthodoxies. One of many largest work in its retrospective of labor by Hervé Télémaque celebrates conservative Jacques Chirac’s landslide victory within the 2002 French presidential election. It’s a carnival of democracy with caricatures of Chirac from Le Monde. On the backside of the jovial canvas, nevertheless, are figures appropriated from a portray about lynchings by the nice African-American artist Jacob Lawrence. And there’s the sombre undertow. Chirac’s rival for the Élysée Palace was Nationwide Entrance chief Jean-Marie Le Pen. That’s what made the victory so candy, even when you weren’t a conservative, but in addition threaded with anxiousness.
I used to be neither cheered nor anxious by this sadly irrelevant murals. It doesn’t make current historical past come alive. That’s the difficulty with portray. A canvas from centuries in the past could be devastatingly instant, whereas one completed the opposite day is usually a dusty relic. I’m unsure if the 2002 election is remembered all that a lot even in France. And it is a pretty current occasion by the requirements of Télémaque’s artwork. US navy actions within the Nineteen Sixties and the loss of life of André Breton are among the many tales this Parisian pop artist tells. Nothing dates extra badly than pop artwork. Most of its practitioners are museum artists now, misplaced in time. Who desires yesterday’s papers?
However let’s attempt to learn via them. Born in Haiti in 1937, Télémaque fled the brutal rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier at 20 and lived in New York earlier than shifting to Paris in 1961. As quickly as he arrived, you may see him grappling with the paradoxes of francophone tradition in one in all its quintessential trendy expressions – the Tintin books of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé.
On the entrance of the present is a round 1966 picture of a caricatured black face that would have come straight out of Tintin within the Congo. However it’s each an absurd self-portrait and a backhanded homage to Tintin’s creator. If Télémaque can present the ugly racist facet some see in Hergé, he additionally admires his crisp, sharp traces. In entrance of the face float two pairs of underpants in Hergé’s personal fashion.
The place Roy Lichtenstein noticed the great thing about American teen comics, Télémaque ransacks the bandes dessinées. His 1966 work Stock, an Inside Man incorporates a massive blue tent so Hergé-like you half anticipate Captain Haddock to emerge from it. However the enjoyable ends there. This can be a quintessentially pop picture, but it’s a part of a very enigmatic constellation of stuff that’s alleged to be autobiographical. Télémaque tries to speak an interior thriller, rooted in his expertise of psychoanalysis in addition to colonial historical past, which explodes the apparently strong, on a regular basis types of pop artwork into summary nebulae. You begin out assiduously making an attempt to decipher them however are quickly defeated by the indigestible melange.
I used to be nearly grateful for the didactic captions as a result of not less than they provide one thing to carry on to. How can the pretty easy visible language of pop concurrently embody expressive autobiography, the historical past of empire and politics of race? Seems it might’t. Just like the anglophone pop historical past painter RB Kitaj, the extra depth Télémaque tries so as to add to pop’s ephemeral surfaces, the much less convincing, or shifting, his work turn out to be.
There are sculptures, too. The Love Tune of J Alfred Prufrock takes a single line from TS Eliot’s poem of that title – “I’ve measured out my life with espresso spoons” – and illustrates it by portray a chunk of roughly carved wooden with espresso grounds. As soon as you already know it was made with espresso, there are resonances of exploitative labour within the Caribbean and Africa. However nothing visible within the work means that. And the Eliot reference appears a bit heavy to relaxation on a chunk of driftwood.
His work simply cling about ready for some pretentious idiot to decode them. Drift n1 is about Africa and the Americas, says the caption, “whereas on the backside of the canvas is a reference to the historical past of slavery via the semi-abstract depiction of a sequence gang”. Semi-abstract is a well mannered approach of placing it. I dare anybody to recognise this portray’s content material with out being informed. It simply appears to be like ornamental, overcomplicated and airtight.
The true drift right here is within the Serpentine’s programme. Why is it all of a sudden so pressing to exhibit this recherché Parisian artist? As a result of he offers with race? Effectively, he does so in such an odd, obscure approach that it barely appears his actual theme. In truth, I see no theme right here in any respect.