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Triangular cubby-hole made worse by clutter; Terry Grimley prefers the art to its presentation at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and finds a bleak fascination in Edmund Clark's photographs at the Light House.

Byline: Terry Grimley

Pop Art is primarily associated with the 1960s, that brief pinnacle of postwar, never-had-it-so-good optimism.

But its roots went deep into the previous decade and in recent years its ongoing influence has emerged more clearly, particularly in the work of the so-called Young British Artists.

This is the angle explored in Pop Art Now and Then, the third in the series of re-displays of Wolverhampton Art Gallery's Pop Art gallery, which shows recent pieces by contemporary artists like David Mach, Gary Hume, Michael Craig-Martin, Gavin Turk and Dexter Dalwood alongside works by artists of the 60s and 70s, drawn from its own collection and various loans.

I must say that I'm no more enthusiastic about the gallery itself than I was at first sight. After the impressive new atrium this triangular cubby-hole of a space comes as a great disappointment, made worse by cluttered over-presentation.

And on the subject of presentation, here are a few specific complaints. The regular misuse of the apostrophe in greengrocers' chalked notices is one thing, but it's unforgivable in a supposedly educational museum caption, as in the sentence: "It's ie Pop Art's use of commonplace objects and commercial advertising is immediately recognisable."

And having borrowed an early Patrick Caulfield painting from the Royal College of Art to display alongside the gallery's own Tandoori Restaurant from 1971, shouldn't the captions be updated to record the fact that this major figure in British Pop died in 2005?

Finally, though Jackie Kennedy might be fair game as a 60s Pop icon, is it just me that finds it tasteless that the image chosen for the "Jackie Pin-Up Puzzle" shows her wearing the famous pink outfit from the day of her husband's assassination?

Jackie, anyway, is an abidingly iconic figure, though the woman herself doesn't appear in Dexter Dalwood's large painting Jackie Onassis, which is instead devoted to the imagined interior of her bedroom on the luxury yacht of her second husband, the millionaire shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

David Mach's portrait of Elvis Presley, All the King's Men, on the other hand, gives us the full Pop pin-up in as frank a piece of fandom as you might expect from an early work by Peter Blake. The difference, though, is not just the gigantic scale but the fact that Mach has created the image - in a feat of astonishing virtuosity - from collaged postcards of guards at Buckingham Palace.

Mach's ability to turn one thing into something entirely different is already familiar to visitors to Wolverhampton Art Gallery from his giant portrait bust of singer and TV presenter Richard Jobson, created from 1,850 metal coathangers, which is on permanent display in the entrance hall. In sharp contrast to Dalwood's blundering handling of paint, Mach's works are technically immaculate to a degree that deflects doubts about the point of his artistic alchemy.

Completing a trio of revisited Pop icons is Gavin Turk's Guevara Reversed, in which the ubiquitous image of the Argentinian freedom fighter becomes a negative and apparently (though this is difficult to read) has Turk's own face superimposed on it.

Here it's juxtaposed with a print with collage on the theme of Guevara by Joe Tilson, made in 1969, from the permanent collection.

Another contemporary work with Pop echoes is Kitagawa-Kun, the over-life sized, kitsch figure of a small boy by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, which is on loan from the Frank Cohen collection.

If there was a prize for spotting the odd work out here, I would go for Peter Sedgley's Video Disques, made in 1968 and bought for the collection in 2006. I'm old enough to remember this multiple work being launched in Studio International, when I seem to recall that it was meant to be shown in a darkened room.

Perhaps that would give it a bit more of a visual kick, because under normal lighting these brightly-coloured revolving discs don't actually appear to "do" anything in terms of optical effects. In the 60s, Op Art was seen as quite distinct from Pop, though with the benefit of hindsight work like this might seem to connect with the same fun-loving Technicolor aesthetic.

Finally, this display brings what I believe is the first showing in the new gallery of Roy Lichtenstein's Purist Painting with Bottles, painted in 1975 and bought by Wolverhampton four year later. An art-historical in-joke, where Lichtenstein treats this relatively esoteric style of European abstraction to his familiar comic strip stylisation, it was apparently one of the artist's favourite paintings, and I'd forgotten how large it is. It's a tribute to the vision and ambition of the late David Rodgers, founder of Wolverhampton's Pop collection, that this is not only one of the stars of the collection but also probably the most significant postwar foreign painting in a West Midlands museum.

Also currently showing in Wolverhampton, at the nearby Light House media centre, is Still Life Killing Time, an exhibition of photographs by Edmund Clark documenting the former E Wing at Kingston Prison in Portsmouth.

This unique facility, which housed prisoners, aged between their late 50s to over 80, who were destined to spend the rest of their lives in prison, existed for eight years but has since closed.

Clark chose not to show the inmates themselves, instead pointing his large-format camera at details of their environment, including many of their personal possessions. He acknowledges his debt to the Dutch tradition of "vanitas" still life, which uses objects to symbolise the futility of human existence - though the objects there are usually more opulent than the cheap clutter to be seen here.

The knowledge that these spaces are inhabited by some of the country's worst offenders - murderers, rapists and paedophiles - inevitably makes looking at these images an uncomfortable but compellingly voyeuristic experience.

The overall impression is bleak, in a way that perhaps only impersonal institutions can be, but also pathetic. One photograph, for example, shows a prisoner's bedspace, with a walking stick leaning against a Spartan bedside cupboard, on which are two or three books including, ironically, A Question of Honour by Jeffrey Archer.

Elsewhere you can glimpse a walking frame, a decimal conversion chart still taped to a cupboard 35 years after the death of pounds, shilling and pence and, most shockingly, a list of instructions reminding an inmate how to use the toilet. If ever there was a corner of our society we would want swept under the carpet, this is it - although it doesn't look as though some of these floors got swept very often.

Pop Art Now and Then is at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until August 9 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; admission free).

Still Life Killing Time is at the Light House, Fryer Street, Wolverhampton, until March 12 (Mon-Fri 9am-8.30pm, Sat, Sun from one hour before first film screening-8.30pm; admission free).

CAPTION(S):

David Mach's portrait of Elvis Presley, All the King's Men; Lichtenstein's Purist Painting with Bottles. Right is Kitagawa-Kun, the over-lifesized, kitsch figure of a small boy by Japanese artist Takashi Murakam
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 26, 2008
Words:1167
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