‘The artist must question the very nature of society.’ - Stephen Willats, 1963
Having consistently proclaimed art to be a social phenomenon, Stephen Willats’ name is synonymous with a socially minded, transdisciplinary practice that foregrounds the community and positions himself in the back seat as an instigator, or orchestrator, of change. It is no surprise then that the current exhibition at Raven Row takes its title from Willats’ eponymous magazine, ‘Control’ - itself a provocation to authority and dominant hierarchies - to present an extensive range of early works dating from the 1960s. Comprising magazine copies, furniture and clothing design, kinetic installations, sculpture and work on paper, the exhibition forms an in-depth historical survey of Willats’ decades-long and still ongoing pursuit of self-organisation and self-empowerment through art.
Throughout the space, process and communication remain paramount in Willats’ practice, no matter the medium. PVC dresses, modular armchairs, shoulder bags and helmets testify to Willats’ short-lived stint as a ‘conceptual designer’. Elsewhere, a darkened maze of machine works, titled ‘Visual Automatic’ and ‘Visual Transmitter’, which were intended as visual stimuli to chart visitors’ changing states of consciousness, is a reconstruction of Willats’ solo exhibition at Museum of Modern Art Oxford in 1968. The public, either as an individual or a group, is an unspoken, but integral, component in all these works. If the kinetic and light works project a carefully constructed, phenomenological environment with a view to affecting viewer behaviour, ‘Variable Sheets No. 3’ (1965/2013) - a shift dress made up of interchangeable panels of PVC, each sporting a behavioural descriptive (‘BOLD’, ‘MEAN’, ‘RUDE’ and so on) - is the individual wearer’s loud proclamation of self to his or her daily environment.
Key to Willats’ work throughout the 1960s was the cybernetic idea that people could take control of their environments, which equally serves as an explanation for his insatiable curiosity in fields as diverse as linguistics, computer engineering, advertising, urban design, and their influence on social interaction. The drawings and sketches scattered throughout Raven Row’s galleries, in this respect, offer insightful documentation and probably bear the closest formal resemblance to Willats’ work once he rejected an object-based practice from the 1970s onwards. Directional arrows instigate movement across the picture plane in ‘Homeostat Drawing No. 2’ (1969) and ‘Maze Drawing No. 2’ (1967). Increasingly, these drawings take on a diagrammatic function, indicating a way of understanding social relations within smaller groups or larger communities. An earlier piece, ‘Architectural Exercise in Colour and Form’ (1962), in which the architecture of tower blocks and council housing is broken down into simple geometric variables, is a clear precursor to Willats’ later interest in these urban features as ideological symbols within the construction of society.
Walking through the space one begins to count the variety of forms Willats courted and abandoned before turning to work exclusively with the public and within their environment. From this perspective, ‘Control’ verges on becoming a documentation of artistic failures, of objects and schemas that lack the open-endedness and unpredictability of social interaction, despite the parameters which attempt to contain such interaction. This point is emphasised by the current fragility of many of the objects on display, most notably the 1968 Oxford display, which remains off for a large duration of the exhibition after opening night. No longer interactive, they remain as relics to Willats’ early experimentation, testament to his tireless research, one that foregoes the gallery for the local high street.