Richard Hamilton: Modern Moral Matters

Article excerpt

* Richard Hamilton: Modern Moral Matters

Serpentine Gallery London 3 March to 25 April

What 'modern' might mean, when applied to pictures, is crucial in Richard Hamilton's work. He always seems to be asking what makes an image contemporary or, inversely, what dates it. The 20th century's progress in image-making technologies has preoccupied him, despite the fact that his career largely predates the segue into the digital age. Hamilton's focus on the moral implications of the growing circulation of images looks forward to the work of much younger artists, such as Sean Snyder, with his interrogation of the ways in which image transmission by the mass media is politically manipulative. Snyder began as a painter but gave it up early on for a digital film medium that has less to do with film in its original sense than an infinitely flexible aggregate of pixels encoding data. Hamilton, however, has never renounced painting, and his is a more traditional take on the medium than Andy Warhol's, for example.

The Serpentine has concentrated on Hamilton's overtly political work from the 1960s onwards, and yet he was previously one of the original proponents of Pop Art. Pop made him political by drawing his innately moral intelligence into a consciousness of the mendacity of the mass-reproduced image. One of the most recent works here consists of two printed canvas banner maps representing the contours of Israeli and Palestinian territory, the first showing the original UN Partition of 1947, the second, the drastically revised lineaments of the current occupation, so that we are dramatically confronted with how much land has gradually been leeched away from the Palestinians. Rendered in bold primary colours, the computer-generated info-graphic is a journalistic commonplace that proves also to be a classic Pop object. If Hamilton's inclination is towards good old-fashioned moralising, the resistances of the old-fashioned media he has adopted tend to force his statements into greater moral complexity. This may be one reason why the recent work, with more technological power at its disposal, tends to be more simplistic. There is a revealing catalogue text in which Hamilton traces the tortuous passage of analogue data from a cine-camera, capturing a student murdered by the authorities during the Kent State Vietnam protests, all the way to the TV screen which he photographed in order to produce the silkscreens for Kent State 12 stage proofs, 1970.

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Turn the corner from Map of Palestine, 2009-10, and there is a whole room given to Hamilton's 'Swingeing London 67' series of 1968-69, transporting us back from the neat digital contours of the maps to an uneasy conjunction of primitive, half-tone newpaper printing and Hamilton's slick, tentative overpainting. The key to the series is a collage of clippings documenting the arrest of Mick Jagger and Hamilton's then-gallerist Robert Fraser for possession of drugs. The source image for the series is nothing special: a blurry shot of two men in the back of a police vehicle, handcuffed to each other, hands raised to shield their faces from the paparazzi. There are ten versions of this image in various media; Hamilton reworked the original image and then tinted the silkscreen print, added collage to it and, in one version, even inlaid chunks of stainless steel as a relief depiction of the cuffs. The attention lavished on a throwaway document confers its own significance, dignifying it as an allegorical symbol, the gallerist literally bound to the pop star, a collusion of fine art and burgeoning celebrity culture as fellow outlaws. Obsessive scrutiny makes something sinister and totemic of the image, outstripping its tawdry occasion, its fleeting tabloid currency.

If Snyder exposes the mass media's pretensions to authenticity, Hamilton passes its imagery through a high-art filter in order to perform a symbolic consecration. …