Monday, 13 February 2017

John Hyatt: Rock Art

From 04 February through to 29 March 2017, the galleries at Manchester’s HOME art centre are the stage for a grouping of collaborative installations, sculptural pieces, and digital and audio works by John Hyatt. 

The whole affair, loosely predicated on the theme of the ego of the artist and its transcendence by communal activity, is accompanied by a series of four early evening Friday night music and cabaret events, all MC’d by Hyatt, under the title CLUB BIG. CLUB BIG being a reference to an actual Club in Milan where Hyatt performed in the 1980s whilst a member of Post-punk musical trio The Three Johns.   

The walls of the area designated CLUB BIG has a thin peppering of art student paintings, a cut-out figure, object sculptures, and digital playback screens, all showing work engaging with the concept of prospective alter-egos for Hyatt the artist and educationalist.

The HOME publicity goes further than just presenting Hyatt as both an artist and teacher announcing him as a Renaissance-style polymath: artist, musician, scientist and punk professor. Although the claims of multidisciplinary competence may be a tad overblown, the gallery promotional blurbs expand further on his impressive skills-base - photographer, designer, printmaker, author and sculptor. 

The press release and exhibition pamphlet add a jokey reverential tone and appear to be a further comedic layer of ego-buffing; Hyatt is an ‘irrepressible explorer’,‘transdisciplinary theorist’, ‘one of the North West’s most beloved and exciting artists’, ‘an irrepressible and influential force’ and a ‘genuine original collaborator-innovator.’  

Hyatt’s solo work has certainly jumped around different art forms. 

Recent paintings are generally filled with cartoonish vegetation, often toxically bright Edens with Hyatt’s figure striding purposefully through the compact of Surrealism’s impossible space and Outsider Art’s earnest escapism.

Hyatt’s digital prints ‘Rossendale Fairies’ (2014), photographic enlargements of blurred winged creatures, were allegedly fairies frolicking in the sunshine; a clear reference to the 1917 Cottingley Fairies hoax. Teenagers Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths photographed themselves with drawings of fairies pasted onto cardboard and convinced the credulous members of the newspaper reading public of their authenticity.
His most high-profile artwork is probably still the impressively tall ‘Tilted Windmills’ public sculpture sprouting from the pavement in Manchester centre’s Exchange Square. Unfeasibly large replicas of the popular children’s rotating sand castle bling, they are as proudly ostentatious as a Damien Hirst fabrication.
A constant is these examples is Hyatt’s intentional occupation of a peculiar territory between cynical, self-promoting showmanship and a stubborn, almost childish, belief in the transformative potential of imaginative play.

For all its trinkets and constructions, reference points and echoes of historical models of art play, ‘Rock Art’ is a less self-reflective or revealing event than a genuine retrospective would have been: the term ego may be bandied about but is never explained, the concept of an alter-ego cited but never really exhibited.

The exhibition physically announces itself before reaching the gallery entrance in the form of a Hyatt-themed merchandise shop: there’s Hyatt collaborative and solo CDs, tee-shirts, cups, badges, and on and on.

Once the product placement plinths are negotiated, the galleries contain a handful of interactive areas, headphones for music and digital playback screens.

‘The Great Deception’ (2017) is a large, approximately ten feet tall, boxy sculpture of the Trojan horse covered in the tiny mirrored squares of a mirrorball. Inside the empty MDF and wood construction a disembodied voice relates instructions on intergalactic travel, the horse is a fantasy spaceship womb and a disco bauble.

The implications of male aggression and the cult of the egotistical leader who often fuels its battlefield release feeds into the black and white imagery on the three long hanging banners of ‘The Anticipation’ (2017). Putin, Trump and planet Mars, the god of war in the planetary zodiac of meaning, all appear on these parodies of early punk records cheaply collaged covers.

The series of hangs accompany the directive theatrical rope barrier leading into CLUB BIG. The moments waiting in anticipation of the evenings revelries seem to be being compared to the build up towards the fallout from the butting egos of the world leaders. 

There’s two independent digital ‘video’ work.

‘Brainbox’ (2017) is a two channel piece: the right hand playback has Hyatt speculating on the human brains capacity to create meaning for itself; the left shows a shifting of mass in a granular powdering of vibrated sand, the work referencing Hyatt’s and mathematician Jon Borresen’s earlier joint work ‘Creative Spiral’ (2016). 

The three channel piece ‘Three Wishes’ (2017) is really a rejigged compilation of old footage: words cut out of lines of poetry filmed on a vibrating surface shift around, the organic curls of moving sand forms overlay Hyatt’s face, the geology of the Peak District imperceptibly moves on the final screen. 

‘The Collection And Reading Room’ (2017) is a pop-up lending library housed in a white gallery cube of the type seen at art fairs and biennales. The inside walls hold top to bottom white shelves supporting copies of Hyatt’s large collection of superhero comics. 

The hero’s identity hidden behind an alter-ego is a perennial in these stories but the notional idea of surface camouflage is taken further. The display cube’s external walls are coated in a regular pattern of large red dots, these bring to mind the red dots indicating a gallery sale and the atomic unit of the Ben-Day dots which construct early comic book imagery. 

In an ‘art’ space they cannot avoid also insinuating a nod towards the Pop Art productions of Roy Lichtenstein and, tellingly, the endless fabrication of spot paintings rolled out by showman artist Damien Hirst.

To further muddy loose connections between the installations elements, a shallow surrounding display case houses various rocks and stones. Each has a couple of text panels relating a spotty holidaying adolescent’s escape into the fantasy worlds between a comic’s covers.

Tentative connections but manageable if the whole thing remained self-contained. 

The dotted tomes can, however, be read in a cafeteria area serving a John Hyatt inspired infusion, an attempt by artist Mike Chavez-Dawson to distill and transcribe personal qualities into an invigorating assault on nostrils and palate. 

In the cross-over arena of pop and art, there are notable predecessors. Raymond Pettibon, with his comic-book and cartoon influenced drawings and designs for LA punk bands, has himself become culturally enmeshed with the noise of Black Flag and their contemporaries. The visuals of Pettibon’s designs are as resonantly influential as the music it augments and fine tunes.

Hyatt’s output is a much more fragmented compilation of art historical styles and procedures for producing ‘art,’ as indebted to Fluxus performance events as it is to techniques of ‘appropriation’ so prevalent in 1980s art school culture.

With this in mind, proclaiming oneself a ‘Punk Professor’ is, presumably, an ironic reference to the art-worlds over-reliance on irony. Or something along those lines. 

However, ‘Punk’ (whatever that actually may be) was dependent on a spikiness and irreverence, even to its own lineage; the stance of the professorial and academic, for all its implications of willful aloofness, upon a degree of specialism and intellectual rigour. Hyatt’s exhibition would benefit from a considerably more nuanced interplay between the two.

The ‘Rock’ of the exhibition title transmutes into the gray mineral versions (in the text and display cases surrounding the ‘Collection and Reading Room’ installation), into the sticky sugar tubes of confectionary rock (in the Hyatt-themed merchandise shop) and the rock strummings of the CLUB BIG musicians. Unfortunately, the component bits don’t seem to add up to anything close to the weight and heft of an actual rock.

Finally, the ‘Rock Art’ exhibition is momentarily diverting as an exercise in hijacking Nicolas Bourriaud’s popular socializing-as-art notion of contemporary practice and converting it into a means of self-promotion.