Critics’ Picks

View of “Dennis Morris,” 2016.

View of “Dennis Morris,” 2016.


Dennis Morris

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Arts, London
The Mall
March 23–May 15, 2016

With the opening of Dennis Morris’s “PiL - First Issue to Metal Box,” an exhibition of the designer’s work for Public Image Ltd’s first two albums, the museum also celebrated forty years of punk, with performances by a slew of DJs and the all-female band Skinny Girl Diet, who screamed their ideals to an audience of sleek page-boy haircuts, broad-brimmed hats, tight leather, and faces full of piercings. It felt like a head-on collision between the past and present. The show’s location in a small room beneath a staircase leading to a bar seemed appropriate and not too unlike PiL’s coordinates within music history: firmly tucked into the bowels of the Establishment yet weirdly hidden, even marginalized. The vitrines display Morris’s visual brand building: photographs of John Lydon after his heyday with the Sex Pistols and during the creation of PiL; fictional newspaper interviews; a promo video from 1978 of Lydon drinking a beer onstage in a blue suit and screaming (Public Image, 1978); and Metal Box’s iconic album sleeve, with its embossed, aspirin-shaped logo—band as commercialized “product” and necessary drug. It all feels and looks so precious—somehow trapped in amber. But for those unfamiliar with the complexity of the scene, it documents a particular trajectory of punk and post-punk aesthetics with museological deftness.

There is a quiet photograph of Lydon, who recently turned sixty, that seems rather tongue-in-cheek: Morris’s John in Kingston, Jamaica, 1978, features Lydon, twenty-two years old at the time, around totemic-looking cacti and assorted shrubs. In the arid environs, his gray, barely buttoned shirt, black pants, and leather wristbands contrast starkly with the natural environment. It does, however, push one to envision the cactus as a “punk” plant. After all, a cactus is extraordinarily resilient in the worst of conditions and, if you get too close, can really fuck you up.