At the Jerwood Gallery: Marcus Harvey: Inselaffe

This is the catalogue which, at £5.50, is an absolute bargain.
This is the catalogue which, at £5.50, is an absolute bargain.

Anyone who has travelled home from the continent has played the game of “I can see England.”  Normally, at first, you aren’t sure if those fuzzy shapes on the horizon are clouds or the first sign of the White Cliffs but, eventually, there is clarity and, before you, stand those ultimate symbols of Blighty.  Marcus Harvey’s excellent exhibition at the Jerwood plays with those iconic, natural structures, as well as pretty much everything else that makes England English.  Given that the day I walked round it properly was also the day in which Hastings’ own MP talked about securing the industry of this island for its natives, it seems that Inselaffe has become during its run something bigger than maybe first imagined.  This is proper ‘state of the nation’ stuff.

Those cliffs find themselves repeated several times.  Most straightforwardly with the representative brushstrokes of Albus, which feels a little like a softer version of a John Virtue sea painting. This is contrasted brilliantly with, for example, The English Cemetery, in which, compressed like a rotting favela a squashed English suburbia rises up in place of the cliffs.  Albus could hang on the wall of a Ukip constituency office; The English Cemetery would generate only angry letters to the Mail.

Elsewhere, there are cartoonish, grotesque, distorted sculptures. Mr Punch looks like a devilish child snatcher, but then maybe he always was. Nelson appears. Not the astute, brilliant, officer but the distorted, blimpish, golf club caricature of a soldier who has never fought but who still believes in the glory of Empire.  Meanwhile, we have a bronze of Thatcher, tits out and being caressed by a pig. Not the subtlest work you’ll ever see but it feels vital.  This is art that shocks but, so rare now, placed in the context of genuine political feeling.  The nonsensical, impossible memories of power reach their finest expression in Untitled (Big Galleon) painted earlier this year: at its foot a ship, perfectly ordinary and so familiar from so many works you’ll have seen on school trips, but on top of that base an abundance of flags, weapons, bubbles … and tits, obviously.

This is an enjoyable show. I love art that feels this alive. The strokes of the paintbrush so deep and strong, and the sculptures so clever and compelling.  But there is now a serious message here.  How much are we prepared to mock the Colonel Blimps with their righteous but wrong-headed views and how much are we prepared to leave the gallery and confront them?

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