With the title lifted from a poem by Tim Bobbin, While England Mourns at Touchstones Rochdale marks the 50th anniversary of the social and political unrest of May 1968’s Parisian riots, celebrates the popular satirical outpourings of 18th century Milnrow schoolmaster, poet and caricaturist John Collier (AKA the aforementioned Tim Bobbins), and questions art’s efficacy and use in our unsettled times.
The result of these knotty speculations is a quixotic compact of academic musings, and an affection for the decorative and its joyfully anarchic heart.
The exhibition itself acts as an installation of cross referencing, disparate parts.
An open copy of Bobbin’s book The Human Passions Delineated shows engaging caricatures of over-indulging, dissolute fops. It sits in a Perspex case next to a crude, Toby Jug style terracotta head of Tim Bobbin, smiling sarcastically at proceedings.
A copy of Beauty Is In The Street, Johan Kugelberg and Phillipe Vermes’s compilation of student rabble-rousers ATELIER POPULAIRE’s designs of incendiary propaganda posters, is also on display. These dotted the French capital at the tipping point of civil unrest in 1968. The book is opened at the page which provides the design Quaife appropriates and repeats as a central motif throughout the rest of the show.
This seductively colourful, stenciled image of a brick-tossing anarchist and the slogan ‘La Beaute Est Dans La Rue’ (‘Beauty Is In The Street’) is repeated on a series of large ‘paintings’ on an industrial, foil-coated insulation board normally associated with construction work. Each panel is sat on house bricks, each physically and tonally slightly different; almost bordering on a splashy, decorative abstraction. Curls of aluminum silver, stripped from surfaces, pepper the floor in front of the wall-leaning panels.
Andrew Hunt’s supporting essay does a decent job of contextualizing the whole thing, noting the enduring influence, both on the northwest’s creative types and Quaife’s exhibition, of the Situationist International and their sloganeering during the Paris riots of May 1968. (Most notably on their pop savvy local predecessors at Manchester’s Factory Records.)
Significantly, Hunt balances these influences with Quaife’s concerns around painting’s sly self-reinvention, and its nuanced capacities to both seduce and cattle-prod prospective audiences.
Considered in these terms, this parade of brick-throwing anarchists becomes not just a comic embodiment of localized frustration at an increasingly centralized socio-political power structure. The protestors seem to be quite literally enacting the death of abstract painting’s potency as a progressive cultural development.
Filtered through Pop Art’s graphic clout and the Parisian rioters of May 1968, with their self-conscious appropriation of promotional flyers and street graffiti, the installation throws bricks at itself, dismantling the art gallery’s physical fabric as ammunition and, in the process, suggesting a severe ambivalence towards ‘art’s’ co-option as either entertainment or decoration.