Tim Head

Anthony Reynolds Gallery

Things are getting worse. If the Last Days are not actually upon us, they can at least be relied upon to arrive at any moment. The portents are everywhere. We each have our own inventory of the impending terribellum, our own sense of crisis; and even if the End isn’t Nigh, then the myth that it might be sustains us. Myths, as useful as they can be dangerous, serve as instruments of power and control by governments and lobby groups as subject matter for artists. Crisis is good copy.

Tim Head’s paintings often look like enlargements of designs for the fashion trade. Organic motifs repeat in various combinations and color schemes against flat backgrounds in suitably jolly or mildly “shocking” hues, and the mood from painting to painting is varied enough to suit every occasion. Head recently collaborated with clothes designer Georgina Godley on a new spring line, and soon we shall be seeing his imagery on expensive frocks.

Head paints a world of lost perspectives and atrophied significances. In each of the paintings shown here (all but one from 1987) aggregates of human brains, sperm, chromosomes (both X’s and Y’s), steaks, chops, or junk food snacks (Monster Munchies and Golden Nuggets) jostle prettily across the canvas. Golden Nuggets features a parade of black-and-gold morselettes against a pink ground on a very large canvas. Clearly the TV snack has it in for us, has something important to say about our condition. All of its flavor, texture, color, form, and crunch-ability are man-made; it is a paradigm of the artificial. Head is as much concerned with the pap we feed into our minds as into our bodies.

Differences are downplayed, equalized, negated. Sometimes, Head mixes together several motifs in a single work, monstrously enlarged or diminished without regard to their actual relative scale. Everything is depicted in a flat, blobby cartoonish style, made to look harmless and dumb, neither hard nor soft. Here, nothing is slimy, bloody, smelly, or nasty anymore. It is all generic. Head’s ironic titles conflate the horrors of rampant consumerism and biotechnology with a low-budget celluloid sensibility: Replicator, Living Dead, Little Creatures, Prime Cuts, Deep Freeze. He is pointing up the inherent dangers of technological progress, the misuses of scientism, the cynicism of marketing, and the stupidities of consumption. His approach is described in the catalogue essay by Gray Watson as “essentially pessimistic, quotational, post-Warhol, post-Baudrillard.” Not that this should deter us. Head’s work and ideas are to be understood (like everything else) through the terms of their packaging as much as through their ostensible preoccupations. His works during the ’70s relied heavily on relatively high-tech effects, the trappings of which—projectors humming in dark galleries, cables trailing underfoot—were as memorable as the installations themselves.

This work seems to be showing us an artificial picture of a world that itself is becoming artificial. The people who are likely to look at this work already know this—don’t they? Or does Head’s project itself provide a further screening and sanitizing of existence? The most singular image in the show was Dark Planet, 1988, a painting of the whole world derived from a satellite image that showed ocean depths and land masses. It was a compelling image, and an unimaginable one to anyone born before the advent of the microprocessor.

Adrian Searle