Exhibition Review: William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, David Lynch at the Photographers’ Gallery

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Unknown Photographer. Burroughs in the Villa Mouniria Garden Tangier © Estate of William S. Burroughs

Unknown Photographer. Burroughs in the Villa Mouniria Garden Tangier © Estate of William S. Burroughs

Three 20th Century art heroes, three unexpected photographers, multiple insights into the future of imagery.

Exhibition reviews for photographers and art buyers, transporting ideas from the artworld to your desktop, to inspire new thinking for your work

Who?

William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, and David Lynch. Three wonderfully avant-garde oddballs of American culture (not especially known for their photography) but it turns out that their work was in fact remarkably prophetic. It’s not uncommon that the work of the strangest, most ‘out-there’ artists only feels strange, ‘unreal’, mad in the present because it’s often a precursor of the future we can’t yet imagine. Photographers, art buyers and other visual creatives have a head start.  While many see art as good for the soul, it’s some ways more helpful to see it as a way in which artists and image-makers pick-up on change in society and culture.

What?

Three separate Exhibitions on three floors of The Photographers’ Gallery, each exhibition title has the culture-celeb/colon-subtitle format highlights the fact these cultural celebs are exploring the medium of photography. David Lynch: The Factory Photographs; Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs; Andy Warhol: Photographs 1976-1987.  What’s the connection between them? Well the design elements on the invites and brochures from the Gallery – red and white stripes and broken blue lettering, suggesting the shifting American identity portrayed by these different image-makers.

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Decisive Moment?

Warhol: “I want to be a machine” said Andy Warhol in the early 1960s. Aside from the serial art produced by Warhol and his team of young Factory workers, Warhol saw himself as a receiver and transmitter of interesting cultural stuff, a cooler version of the more desperate cool-hunters of our digital age. Warhol was acutely sensitive to shifts and change (he got out of fashion illustration as photography was beginning to dominate the magazines). His photos of the contents of his fridge, echoing his images of commodities such as soup cans, are precursors of the Instagram culture. These photos are the result of the new technology of the 35mm point-and-shoot Minox camera he bought in 1976. While this series of Jerry Hall presages the shift from the famous as cultural and symbolic icons, to celebrity as social currency.

Andy Warhol. Jerry Hall,1976-1987

Andy Warhol. Jerry Hall,1976-1987

But more fascinating for photographers is the premium Warhol put on the value of the image, even or especially images that weren’t unique. We have one image to show here in this review, and as an editor over the years of small budget print magazines, getting hold of a Warhol image was always a commitment to negotiation. Which is as it should be. Even, or especially in a world that depends on the image as the medium of communication

Lynch: David Lynch’s show is remarkably…Lynchian…? Not many creatives have such a unique take on the world  that their name becomes an adjective. Lynch’s black-and-white The Factory Photographs is accompanied by an ominous rumbling soundtrack created by Lynch himself.

Yet on the one hand it reflects the echoes of German Expressionism of early films such as Eraserhead (strange angles and geometry, ominous shadows) it also foretells our current fascination with the images of “ruins” (discussed here previously).

Previous generations of writers and artists used the ruins of buildings to explore spiritual or psychological ideas. From the late 20th century onwards the scale of the imagery of ruins in artculture and social channels is a sign of our fascination with rapid change. It visualizes an economic and technological shift from the material to the digital. And psychologically it highlights a shift from an optimism about the future to nostalgia for the past.

Like his movie storytelling, Lynch is great at capturing images on the edge of the abstract and the figurative, the images invite us to look at the world pictorially, at shape and form, light and texture, at the sculptural smokestacks and the framing of windows.

David Lynch, Untitled (Lodz), 2000

David Lynch, Untitled (Lodz), 2000

Burroughs: The press release catalogues this carefully curated selection of images taken between the early 1950s and the 1970s, “self-portraits, street scenes, intimate domestic interiors, assemblages, construction sites, and portraits of fellow writers and artists, like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Brion Gysin, and friends and lovers.” But what gives a work a sense of premonition is:

1. A series of images of rooftops with aerials, transmitting and receiving. In his writing and his life, Burroughs was notoriously paranoid and funny about conspiracy and surveillance, obviously completely nuts, no governments would ever engage in mass surveillance, listening or monitoring their citizens’ communications.

2. While Burroughs’ friend, English artist Brion Gysin developed the innovative technique of the cut-up, or at least imported it from the visual art of collage to world of words, it was Burroughs (and later of course David Bowie) who brought the technique to mainstream culture. But what’s interesting in 2014 is how pictures, in emails, instagram, facebook cut-up reality in the way they interrupt our daily life via smartphones, introducing a new idea into our minds at work  on the commute, in the pub.

William S. Burroughs. Untitled, c. 1972 © Estate of William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs. Untitled, c. 1972 © Estate of William S. Burroughs

Trend?

A whole bunch – black and white, surveillance, documenting daily life,

Art Meets Commerce?

Experimentalism. Media and new technology companies have turned us all into experimentalists. What’s interesting about Burroughs, Warhol and Lynch is that they were all incredibly media and tech savvy, in fact you would say that they were media experts rather than simply ‘artists’ – playing with different materials, experimenting with different media with new tech and old tech. And by a strange quirk we have all become experimenters, with new technologies entering our lives all the time that we play with. Visually? It’s seems odd to recommend to a sector driven by ideas of the new, but the prevalence of ‘Ruins’ imagery, and its strange, charismatic beauty, suggests that Advertisers and Clients might want to look at its evocative power. If as Stephen Mayes says, people are becoming more visually sophisticated, playing with ‘moodier’, more abstract imagery can push cultural buttons.

 

David Lynch, Untitled (Lodz), 2000

David Lynch, Untitled (Lodz), 2000

One question for the Image Maker?

“Hi Andy. Where does art end and commerce begin?”

The three shows are on now at The Photographers’ Gallery

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