Spring 2001

A geezer with blunt scissors

Dispatches from an Unofficial War Artist

Peter Kennard. Foreword by Ken Livingstone MP, Mayor of London
Lund Humphries, £25

In London, not far from where I live, there is a man who stands on the kerb and shouts at passing cars. He has done this on and off for years, and he produces an awesome noise. But when you listen to what he’s actually communicating, it is hard not to laugh. He points at passing cars and laughs, shouting: “Look at you, you sad fucks! You’re sad, you are. S-A-A-A-AD!” This performance palls after a while: he is just one more existential bellower-into-the-void, stating the obvious.

Peter Kennard identifies himself strongly with London. He was born and raised in London. He states that the Thames runs through his poetry like an artery. His posters and placards for cnd were carried at demonstrations through London’s streets and parks (I was there!) and he has created happenings outside the London Stock Exchange. He has utilised the very dust of London’s streets to create works about the plight of the city’s homeless and he has created an alternative Millennium Dome at London’s Gimpel Fils gallery. And he also teaches at the Royal College of Art in London and is even represented in London’s Saatchi collection.

Kennard has become his own archivist and divided his back catalogue of work into archive A, which contains his journalistic and illustrative work, and archive B, which contains his art objects. There is a lot of work included, for Kennard is prolific and it is evident from the physical nature of the work that it has involved much blood, sweat and tears.

What is most interesting, though, is the arbitrary nature of this dividing line between two-dimensional graphic work and the three-dimensional objects. In the end a Kennard is a Kennard and therein lies the problem. It is extremely difficult to establish a criteria for evaluating this work objectively. Peter Kennard seems to want it both ways by claiming that his political message should be above the vagaries of taste, and yet relies heavily upon any number of aesthetic devices.

It is confusing – much as one wishes to applaud his earnestness you’re left with the nagging doubt that all this urban in-your-face ugliness is actually rather forced. Kennard’s passion and the energy of his heartfelt beliefs are no excuse for lazy generalisations. You want to shake his hand for his impeccable political correctness and evident humanity, and yet kick his arse for the seemingly endless clichés he comes up with.

All this begs the question, who is Kennard’s work addressed to? To whom does this collection speak? The premise for this book is that Kennard can be held up as a sort of shadow or unofficial war artist, as a healthy alternative to “the conventionally appointed variety, hand-picked by government”.

When I’ve discussed this book with people who might be classified as “the converted”, left-leaning internationalist humanitarians in the visual arts, few of them warmed to it. Kennard is certainly “alternative”, but that brings to mind some faded uk “alternative comedians” whose jokes still rely on a shared belief that Margaret Thatcher is a fascist.

“Alternative” also makes you wonder, “alternative to what?” Kennard’s stance seems to imply that fine art is too esoteric and elitist to deal with political issues and that graphic art is too fiddling (and, in the end, perhaps rather too “girly” for a class warrior). All of which is a shame because I’m sure that he’s a diamond geezer. But in the end the blunt scissors, relentless monochrome and rubbed-in soot is no substitute for polemic. Maybe it’s because he’s a Londoner.

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