Saturday, 20 January 2018

Lichtenstein at the Tate Liverpool joins all the dots

In the Car (1963) Oil paint and magma on canvas
Whenever work sends me away from home for a day or so, one of the first considerations is food. Hot on its heels comes the question of whether there is any art to be hunted down.

Thus a working weekend in Liverpool instantly meant two things: at least one visit to the Docklands Fish & Chips for lunch and a look at what was on at the Tate Liverpool, which is just along the same stretch of the Albert Dock – both no distance from the conference centre where I’m working.

Arriving yesterday in mid-afternoon, a quick lunch saw me choose scampi and chips – served in a box with mushy peas, sliced lettuce, gherkins and silverskin pickled onions. I’m not convinced by this approach, so today I made a point of asking for just battered cod, two potato scallops and mushy peas.

Reflections: Art
If yesterday’s wasn’t bad, this was much better. The chips are not sensational – I still remember a fish ‘n’ chip lunch to die for in Scarborough in 2011, where the chips were double-fried properly, in front of us, in dripping – then today’s fish was absolutely superb.

And the service is as warm and friendly as you would expect north of Watford Gap.

So, what of the art?

Tate Liverpool is 30 years old this year and it’s staging a major show by Fernand Léger, together with one that pairs works by Egon Schiele and Francesca Woodman to examine nudes and self portraiture.

Water Lily Pond with Reflections
At present, however, the main exhibition is work by the British artist John Piper. However, there is also a concise, two-room show by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Perfect for the time-strapped and free to boot.

Having not actually seen any Lichtenstein in the ‘flesh’ – and probably because one unthinkingly knows that a comic fits in your hand easily – I hadn’t even given much though to the scale of Lichtenstein’s works or, indeed, to the mixture of media and techniques that he used.

These are big pieces – and when you realise the precision that is key to them, it’s hardly surprising. But the variety of techniques, from print-making to working with all sorts of media on canvas, to mass-produced ceramics, is the real eye opener.

Sea Shore
For instance, in Reflections: Art from 1988, we get oil and acrylic on canvas. Pretty conventional, really. But then Sunrise (1965) is porcelain enamel on steel and Sea Shore (1964) is oil paint and magma on plexiglass, while Seascape from the following year is screenprint and paper on plastic.

Then there is Water Lily Pond with Reflections (1992), a screenprint on enamel on stainless steel.

Together with Water Lillies with Cloud from the same year – it was a series of six made in collaboration with master printmaker Donald Saff – it’s impossible not to think back to Monet. Indeed, a series of four haystacks prints takes us directly there.

Yet part of the pleasure here is in seeing the links to the past, but in conjunction with Lichtenstein’s extraordinary mastery of such a range of modern materials. And he used those materials to gain specific effects that actually add to the work, rather than simply as some sort of art geek’s technical exercises.

After moving from comic-style works to landscape and a video installation, we come full circle to finish the two rooms with Wall Explosion II (1965), executed in enamel on steel – in many ways, a work that epitomises the power that this incredibly concise exhibition packs: not everything needs to be so vast as to exhaust.

Wall Explosion II
Mixing some of these iconic comic-style works with less-expected landscapes makes for fascinating viewing.

Indeed, such is the familiarity of the comic-book images that I suspect many people scarcely even begin to imagine that Lichtenstein did anything much else.

It’s very much the case that, while those comic works are a very long way from being disappointing, the landscapes are the revelation and the unexpected delight that you come away with.

The Roy Lichtenstein artist rooms are open at Tate Liverpool until 17 June 2018

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