Visiting Love is Enough at Modern Art Oxford (MAO)
Visiting the exhibition Love is Enough in Oxford between Christmas and New Year was a useful thing to do to re-awaken the impulse to make. I have had a long break from textile work, although I did a one day course on collage using prepared papers in various water colour techniques and mixed media.This exhibition was promoted by the OCA, and as I live within a reasonable drives’ distance from Oxford I try to get to most interesting exhibitions that are on there. Besides, there is a good Blackwells bookshop with a largish art book collection to peruse through as well, and the Ashmolean always has something wonderful to give, even if there is nothing special on.
Anyway, I started going through this display at the back of the gallery – usually I go up through the large galley from the front, but this time I started at the back, which was interesting an useful in this case. This exhibition seems to be one you might either think works well, or not at all. The gallery I started in looked at the comparison of William Morris’ work and Andy Warhol’s – a selection of wall paper and textile designs by Morris were hung alongside some flower prints by Warhol - and this part of the exhibition worked reasonably well, the comparison was clear and gelled. The references to decoration were obvious and fed each other. The walls were papered with Morris’ acanthus wallpaper and I do think that was a mistake, as there were very few Warhol prints and the garish synthetic pink and yellow inks used in his prints were swallowed up by the choice of Morris' natural tones of browns and dusky greens. There was nearly a century between the two sets of works and the more recent did not stand as strong.
Similarly the comparisons continued thematically: the politics of the two men, the idea of the factory, writings and interests. I am not sure that any of the other similarities the comparisons aimed to draw out worked very well. For me the comparison pointed at so may differences: an art ‘factory’ in the Warhol style did not evoke the political sentiment behind Morris’ searching for a golden age that would replace the factory of industrial society. Decades of Morris' thinking and writing on the topic of socialism by Morris was not paralleled by Warhol's, although it does seem he lived his life in New York more as an experiment and expression of a pop/modern artist, but this was based on individualism, whilst his art seems to point to meanings challenged by mass consumption.
Anyway, you see what I mean perhaps? The comparison works, but mostly by emphasising the contrasts. I liked Warhol’s early work as an illustrator for fashion magazines. The exhibition showed some small vignettes, white line drawings on small rectangular fields, from the 1950s. The type quite common at that time, lines light and expressive of fun. Again, when you look at Morris’ work you feel the gravitas of the ideas behind it. A tapestry woven with design elements by Morris and Burne-Jones of knights and angels, bringing out the medievalism of his vision is weighty with the ethics of what a good society should be. Warhol, as far as I can see, did not necessarily want to improve society, he wanted to have fun, to work with other artists, but for the sake of that art, poking fun at society maybe, desiring glamour (prints and photos of Hollywood actresses seemed to point to that), whilst yes, he did acknowledge the problems of the Cold War and how the decades he lived through (1960s and 70s were mostly on show).The other thing that I noticed about this exhibition was the promotion by name of its curator, Jeremy Deller, who is a recognized artist in his own right. Maybe the exhibition strove to be a thing in itself, not just about the work of Morris and Warhol, but also a personal statement in Deller’s and MAO’s collaboration. To some extent that might have been the aim – I do think the comparison drawn was contrived at times, I did not think the comparison using the idea of the ‘factory’ worked very well for example.
Overall I did enjoy the show though, I thought there were some interesting things there. I would like to have seen less of Morris’ wallpaper on the walls, it looked fine but could be distracting at times. There were quite a few other visitors there. Last time I went to Modern Art Oxford to see the exhibition of Stuart Brisley’s work there were only a handful of people. Of course it could be because people were on holiday, but both William Morris and Andy Warhol have followings of people, probably at times very different groups of people, depending on which one has their preference. So on the whole an interesting show and worth a visit.