In 1971, Eduardo Paolozzi had his only full retrospective in Britain at the Tate Gallery – it was a flop. Critics proclaimed that his imagery was overused and his ideas stagnant. Now, in 2014, The McManus brings together a selection of Paolozzi’s work from that period and we are able to assess such unforgiving responses.
The title of the show makes reference to the 1938 song of the same name popularised by Louis Armstrong – the lyrics of which refer to being mesmerised: “How they hypnotize, where’d ya get those eyes?“ This theme of distorted views and alternate ways of seeing is prevalent throughout the work featured. “Jeepers Creepers” is a good natured and jaunty exclamation of astonishment, but something darker bleeds through in this selection of Paolozzi’s work.
This exhibition was initially formed following repeated requests by regular visitors to see Ettso,1967, a chromed steel sculpture with a simple repetitive form. Younger visitors enjoyed playing with the distorted reflection created by the contours of the piece. I didn’t respond well to Ettso due to its diminutive size and the fact that it seemed to have been marginalized by its location in a corner of the room. However, as the catalyst for the exhibition, the piece establishes a tone of distortion and alludes to a funfair hall of mirrors.
In his Cloud Atomic Laboratory Series, 1971, Paolozzi uses images of the technological advances which would have saturated the media in the 60’s and early 70’s. He contrasts these images with those of children’s television characters, blurring the boundaries between high art and pop culture through the use of photo-etching, a printing technique which was commonly used in newspapers. Although the images seem jovial at first glance, the first Chimpanzees sent into space are depicted alongside the electric shock technology employed to control their behaviour. Paolozzi is challenging, perhaps, the innocent representation of technological progress portrayed in the press of that time.
The title piece of the show, Jeepers Creepers,1972, aims to deride the minimal stripe paintings of Paolozzi’s contemporaries such as Kenneth Noland. Paolozzi claimed to be repelled by large abstract canvases and declared he could improve the abstract minimalist paintings of his contemporaries by “adding something here and there”. Several large winged insects and a single rocket are hung amongst the large striped canvas which forms the backdrop. This could be taken as a reference to the ongoing Vietnam war. The ice-cream colours used imply the notion of a sugar-coated media which is capable of warping reality. Sure rockets can send chimps into space, but they can also be used to kill.
The exhibition’s final set of screen prints, the Calcium Night Light Series, 1974-76, aim to convey music through visual means. Paolozzi mingles geometric and fluid shapes to represent the varying sound and dynamic of different instruments. They have the look of futuristic city plans, intricate machines or computer circuitry. They struck me as being almost like 21st century aboriginal paintings – a visual representation of a journey. They don’t seem to link directly with the theme of the exhibition, but they tie in with more contemporary technological aspects given their resemblance to computer chips.
I believe Paolozzi’s work may have been considered repetitive in 1971 because the imagery he used was so prevalent in mainstream media. Now however, the current exhibition acts as a time capsule taking us back to the buzz of the 70s while asking us to evade the distractions of pop culture. The overriding feeling I got from the exhibition was that of a double-take. I believe Paolozzi aimed to undermine images which promote unquestioned acceptance of technological advances and yet ignore both moral issues and human cost.