Richard Hamilton weighs Modern Moral Matters at Serpentine Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 03 March 2010
Screenprint of a pair of young men in suits and handcuffs shielding their eyes

(Above) Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London 67 (f) (1968-69). Screenprint on canvas, acrylic and collage. © 2010 Richard Hamilton

Exhibition: Richard Hamilton – Modern Moral Matters, Serpentine Gallery, London, until April 25 2010

More than 50 years since Pop Art began, it is a 1960s aphorism which best explains the varying effects in this show. Marshall McLuhan may have coined the phrase, but it is Richard Hamilton who really demonstrates the adage that "the medium is the message."

In his Swingeing London series, he blows up and recreates a newspaper photo until it becomes an icon. Ten versions fill one of the Serpentine's galleries and the repetition is Warholian, but no two are executed in the same way.

Across the series, Hamilton paints with oils, acrylic, watercolour and gouache. He draws with pencil and pastels. He screen-prints, etches, photo-engraves, die-stamps, embosses and prints using aquatint. He makes stencils and collage.

So in at least ten different ways we see a transfiguration of the arrest of Mick Jagger and Hamilton's friend Robert Fraser into art. Press cuttings make up a nearby Swingeing London poster and evoke the labyrinthine narrative of the event.

A painting of a long-haired hunger striker in a cell smeared with excrement

Richard Hamilton, The Citizen (1981-83). Oil on canvas, two canvases. © 2010 Richard Hamilton

Elsewhere he borrows the conventions of the triptych to sanctify three protagonists in the Northern Irish conflict.

Central to this piece is The Citizen, in which a long-haired hunger striker appears both Christ-like and counter-cultural. He too is a painter, as can be seen from the walls of his cell and his well-documented medium is excrement.

Hamilton also does installation. His chilling Treatment Room contains a hospital bed, sink with disinfectant, a reinforced glass window and an environmental control panel.

In lieu of a doctor, a TV shows a reel of interviews with Margaret Thatcher. This time the medium interrogates Thatcherism even as the former Tory leader seems to be treating the viewer.

An installation of a hospital bed over which a TV screen shows Margaret Thatcher

Richard Hamilton, Treatment Room (1983-84). Installation. © 2010 Richard Hamilton

Recent work by Hamilton, now in his late 80s, takes the form of digital printing onto canvas. These are the most direct works in a highly political show.

Each makes a simple point: Israel is crushing Palestine; in its coverage of the Gulf war, the media has blood on its hands; and Tony Blair fancied himself as a bit of a gunslinger.

But perhaps the real message is around the all-pervasiveness of virtual realities and advertising techniques in the visual realm. The canvas is all but invisible behind the full bleed image.

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