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The Redfern’s exhibition of Derek Jarman, Duggie Fields, Andrew Logan, Luciana Martinez and Kevin Whitney is based on a 1976 essay in Harpers and Queen by Peter York, charting an early 70s subculture, York labelled Them. These were artists and trendsetters who cared more about appearing interesting than attractive, whom York divided into Exquisites and Peculiars. Brian Ferry was king of the Exquisites, the less well off made up the Peculiars.
Forty six years later and my first reaction is this group may not have set out to be attractive, but boy do they look it now. In Johnny Dewe Matthews’ photographs of the period, all orange tones and smiles, everybody looks so happy and sexy, with their glitter make up, bare breasts and copious pubic hair. Men and women all going for the same uninhibited glam look.
Top left to right: Luciana Martinez de la Rosa: Pru Pru 1981; Lilies 1981; Photo
Bottom left to right: Kevin Whitney: Jubiliee James 1977; Chilitea 1969; Derek Jarman: In Cap
Somehow against a background of the Three Day Week, sick man of Europe industrial relations, and gloomy Play For Todays, this group managed to exude happiness in being alive. Only Derek Jarman’s work the Kingdom Over The Sea, featuring a real candle on a black background hits a sombre note. It is from 1987 when Jarman had just been diagnosed with AIDS.
As the best known of the quintet Jarman also crops up at the Tate Modern’s A Year in Art: 1973 (until 20 October), where a very different 1970s is on display, as artists react to Pinochet’s military coup in Chile. Jarman is a participant in Lilane Ljin’s Power Games video, where the Royal College’s print room is transformed into a casino, and gamblers play a card game for domination, to show the arbitrariness of political power. While on the surface the agit prop world of Artists For Democracy, with its blocky red letterhead seems a world away from the exhibition in the Redfern, both world are linked by a vibrancy of colour, a belief in art as a force for change, and a sense of hope. The Arpilleras patchworks created by poor Chilean women to show life under the dictatorship, share a colour scheme and figurative boldness with the displays at the Redfern.
Duggie Fields: SMart 1976
Presided over by Logan’s Orchid, a vibrant red/pink fibreglass flower suspended from the ceiling like a giant insect, Them reacquaints us with the portraiture of Kevin Whitney, where the women, all confidence and power poses look at the viewer full on, while the men are in profile, avoiding our gaze under a veil of shadows. The portraits of Luciana Martinez, who died in 1995 aged 47, are similarly hard stare confident, and her Lilies (1981) in oil and pastel on an inky background, a masterclass in how to be full blown without being overblown. Duggie Fields’ acrylic depictions of women, always missing an outline or a body part feel intriguing and playful at first glance, but hard to look at for any length of time. The flatter the planes and shapes, the more I longed to know what was going on underneath.
Explaining his championing of these artists York says :’Because they were cheerful they made out lives much better’. And it’s true. There’s a happiness, a confidence, a delight in the human body and being alive, that now feel extinct, replaced by anxiety, FOMO, body insecurity and mental distraction. Given the choice, who would not prefer to be Them?
Duggie Fields, Fireside Scene, 1969. Photo by Maria Anastassiou