Framed by the glass doors of Leeds’ Henry Moore Institute, John Latham’s ‘Little Red Mountain’ (1960-62), a charred muddle of books and wires, presides in the centre of the gallery on its scruffy timber base. The sculpture’s grubbiness is only highlighted by the presence of Katie Paterson’s ‘Timepieces (Solar System)’ behind it, where nine minimalist clocks are calibrated to show the time on other planets. ‘Little Red Mountain’ could have been sent back from one of these planets, a library returned from Mars, burnt up upon re-entry and found floating in the Thames. The librarian, sadly, did not survive.
‘A Lesson in Sculpture with John Latham’ brings together a collection of Latham’s work in conversation with over seventeen other artists’ practices – from Duchamp to the present. The general idea is to examine Latham’s often-complex ideas of how art, society and knowledge work together, but also to bring Latham’s work to a new generation of Northern-based artists and audience. Latham’s work has not been widely shown in the UK outside London. He crops up in the John Moore’s painting prize in the 50’s and once at the Bluecoat (Liverpool), but perhaps a key moment for the artist in his relationship with the North is his 1965 rejection from the John Moore’s prize by Clement Greenberg. Just one year later, in 1966, he withdrew Greenberg’s 1961 tome ‘Art and Culture’ (used to torture art students for years to come) from the library of St Martin’s School of Art and organised a ‘chew-in party’. Participants chewed up pages of the book which were then mashed up into a Greenbergian paste, distilled into a test-tube and returned to the library. Obviously, and not I think reductively, this is one of the most repeated stories associated with Latham - it provides a good entry point to some of his ideas and it’s such a damn good art-tale to tell.
The obvious place to start in relation to this story is with the idea of hierarchies. Latham had a problem with being pigeonholed as a certain kind of artist or indeed as an artist at all. He saw himself as an ‘incidental person’ – just one part of a larger network. This was central to his involvement in the formation of the influential Artist Placement Group [APG], which facilitated artists to work and engage with non-art environments. These APG ideas are explored in the final gallery of the Leeds exhibition. One of Latham’s placements (there was several) was with the National Coal Board where he proposed to create ‘monuments to labour’ using the leftover coal waste. On show in the gallery is Lathams’s ‘N U Niddrie Heart’, a curve of glass and sand structures holding various books and wire assemblages accompanied by book and glass studies for his ‘Bing Monuments’ (term for a waste heap). Mary Kelly’s ‘An Earthwork Performed’ occupies the centre of the gallery, a large mound of coke set alongside 16mm film documentation of the coke being shovelled into a pile. First presented at London’s New Arts Lab in 1970, the work was key at a time when roles of the sexes were grappling with activism and labour politics.
Books, access to knowledge and what that means, are also central to this exhibition and to Latham’s practice. Books stuck together, burned up, glued into glass, arranged as monuments. Latham always chose declassified books, objects or suppositories of knowledge deemed superfluous but still imbibed with a kind of power. Latham employs books as material, both elevating and demoting their potential and purpose. Moving back from APG, the high-ceilinged central gallery at the Henry Moore Institute explores ideas of material transformations. Alongside Yves Klein and Marcus Broodthaers it is a treat to discover the Cornelia Parker work ‘My Soul Afire’ (1997) consisting of two charred hymals retrieved from church fires - one from a church struck by lightening in Lytle, Texas and the other from a suspected arson at the Baptist Church of Green Ridge, Kentucky. The books here, transformed by a single event both magical and a bit frightening, suggest so many different avenues of narrative and layers of potential peeling that they come to signify a little of what I think about Latham’s world and work.
While the fudgey sculptures and assemblages are definitely objects that don’t engage me for long - reminiscent too much of a depressing Mike Leigh post-war British landscape, yuckier John Chamberlain’s - it is the world of Latham I am most fascinated by – the polymathic genius of his life and creative/social output. ‘A Lesson in Sculpture’, I feel, could have an endless number of interchangeable artists pairings but it invites you into the Latham universe and allows you to pick one or two connections or juxtapositions for it to make sense to the individual and to spark an interest to learn more.