Tuesday, March 11, 2008

John Latham at Delaye/Saltoun, London


John Latham: The Spray Gun and the Cosmos
11 Savile Row London W1S 3PG
Until April 11th 2008

by Vanessa Nicholas

Delaye/Saltoun is a commercial gallery focusing on post-war British art that opened in London’s Saville Row on February 29. Their first show is “John Latham: The Spray Gun and the Cosmos”.

John Latham was an important British artist of the postwar period and is remembered particularly for his work entitled Spit and Chew (1966), which involved him and his students at Saint Martin’s School of Art chewing the school library’s copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture. The book’s pages were turned to a pulp and left to ferment in a jar. After a series of overdue notices from the library, Latham returned the book in its new form. Needless to say, his teaching contract was not renewed.

Delaye/Saltoun’s show focuses on Latham’s interest in science. As a young man Latham began to question his devout Christian upbringing and sought to find a more satisfying theory of reality. This period of doubt and exploration coincided with his meeting and befriending two scientists, Clive Gregory and Anita Kohse. Latham adopted their belief that an alternate and more inclusive cosmological theory that broke down barriers between science and culture could end human conflict. The spray gun paintings attempt to visually represent ‘least-event’ theory that Latham developed with Gregory and Kohse, and which basically reduces reality to events instead of particles. The burst of paint from the spray gun is a literal representation of what Latham believed to be the essence of cosmological structure. In addition their integration of science and art realizes Gregory and Kohse’s interdisciplinary aims.

The works are explosive, chaotic and vibrating compositions on unprimed canvas. Neutral tones like brown, black, and grey dominate, though are activated by bursts of bright colors including, purple, pink and blue. That these works are removed from the artist’s hand by the spray-gun positions them against the works being made at the same time by the abstract expressionists, which celebrate human gesture. These works have not been exhibited together since they were made in the 1950s.

What I find most endearing and inspiring about Latham’s spray-gun works is his romantic intentions. That he believed his spray-gun full of paint could potentially dissolve barriers between people and establish a peaceful world compels the viewer sympathize with Latham and inspires affection and admiration for these works. I attended a lecture on astrophysics last year and learned that we are all made of stars, literally. Our bodies are composed of matter left over from expired stars. Though idealistic, Latham’s interest in the connection between the universe and human behavior thus appeals to our essence, strips us bare and exposes truth.

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