Tim Head

For the duration of Tim Head’s show, the gallery was transformed into the countryside in summer: downstairs the walls were painted a pale blue, the floor was laid with artificial grass, and fluorescent tubes replaced the usual spotlights. Not really the countryside, not even a pretend-pastoral scene, this transformation represented the all-purpose, anodyne, nowhere space in which contemporary ad-mass society pitches its battle for hearts and minds. Double banked on the walls were 13 large rectangular canvases—their images symmetrical, curvilinear, appealing, sexual, nonspecific, familiar. The familiarity derives from their source material—labels, packaging and the like—collected by Head and mediated through redrawing, photocopying, recoloring, combination and, finally, the process of ink-jet printing onto canvas. Stacked as they were, they reached from floor to ceiling and their brooding dominance of the space soon turned the pleasure of semirecognition into uneasiness. Filling the area around each image was a featureless gray pattern that signaled the electronic-print-media operations out of which the images themselves were generated.

Thirteen Most Wanted, 1992, the title of this work, is a reference both to Head’s concern with the manufacturing of desire and to Andy Warhol’s similarly titled Thirteen Most Wanted Men, 1964. Since leaving college in the late ’60s (where he was taught by, among others, Richard Hamilton), Head has drawn from both Pop and Minimalism. His exploration of the body’s relationship to space in his early installations (represented here as a documentary slide show), his collaborations with dancers and fashion designers, as well as the paintings and photographic work of the past decade all reflect this legacy. Head’s move back into painting came in the mid ’80s. Handmade reproductions lent deliberate irony to his replications of such things as the pattern inside an envelope used to carry confidential documents (Continuous Electronic Surveillance, 1989), or the abstracted-cow motif that decorates the milk cartons in Britain’s best-known supermarket (Cow Mutations, 1986). As its name implies, this work is in fact a series of more or less grotesque distortions of this homely design more suggestive of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy than wholesome goodness. Some among the various magenta and dark-purple splodges of Replicator, 1987, resolve themselves eventually into brain stems, sperm, and chromosomes. The remaining monstrous forms are derived from the shapes of a popular corn snack steeped in E numbers to make it taste good and ensure its longevity.

Head also employs trivial products to good effect in his photographs. The earliest of his Cibachromes, The State of the Art, 1984, conjures a futurist cityscape from lipsticks, videos, computer games, dildoes, miniaturized electronic goods, and dime-store trash; a rainbow-hued vanitas is fashioned from a heap of skull-shaped rubbers in Still Life (Erasers), 1985; and the horizonless landscape of the “Petrochemicaland,” 1991, series is concocted from tangles of audiotape, Styrofoam packaging-pellets, and clothing tags.

The final component of the exhibition was another simple, but strikingly effective installation, Made on Earth, 1992, a room painted entirely black, the walls plastered with self-adhesive labels of differing size, shapes, and color. The only illumination came from two UV tubes that highlighted the labels while making the walls “disappear.” Bereft of a visible support surface, the free-floating labels constituted a kind of Suprematist environment, their variable size reflecting different distances from the viewer. There is a bleak tone to much of Head’s work, but there is also an element of wonder.

Michael Archer