Jamie Reid: XXXXX: Fifty Years of Subversion and the Spirit
Humber Street Gallery, Hull
12 October 2018 - 6 January 2019
Review by Christopher Little
Raised as a socialist and a druid and initiated into political activism at a young age, Jamie Reid blames his parents for his rebellious streak; which at the age of 71, shows no sign of abating. His artwork for the Sex Pistols became a defining symbol of the British punk movement, and he recently collaborated with Russian activist rock group Pussy Riot to protest against the band’s internment. The self-described anarchist uses iconoclastic collages and seditious ransom note-style idioms to marshal a cultural insurgence against the status quo; while his kaleidoscopic paintings reject materialism and individualism through a meditative connection with nature. Spanning half a century, this comprehensive retrospective presents a dyad of work that rouses the spirit and liberates the imagination.
‘XXXXX’ is spread across three floors of the Humber Street Gallery, with Reid’s work descending chronologically from the uppermost level. A huge collage, akin to what you would expect to find plastered on the walls of a dive bar, greets us as we enter the first gallery space. The chaotic assemblage shows some of the most iconic – and controversial – work that Reid produced for the Sex Pistols, including his indelible image of Queen Elizabeth II sporting a safety pin through her lips and swastikas in her eyes. Reid’s radical creations are given even more impetus by the punk maxims emblazoned across them, with ‘no one is innocent’, ‘terminate the greedy’ and ‘say it with bricks’ just some of the virulent slogans baying for your attention.
Elsewhere in the upper gallery, Reid’s work is given more room to breathe. The genesis of his cut-and-paste style is revealed in archival copies of his Suburban Press, an anarchist publication he created during the 70s. A range of posters, drawings and off-cuts give a rough yet fascinating insight into the thought processes behind Reid’s collaborations with the Sex Pistols, showing how a jumble of ideas and magazine cuttings came together to concoct the unruly collages and ransom note text that became synonymous with British punk. The exhibition’s collection of photographs, bed sheets, police notices and newspaper cuttings add colour to this narrative by showing how the band’s tumultuous style enthralled the public and antagonised the establishment.
Influenced by Russian agitprop, Reid’s work utlilised the twin strategies of agitation and propaganda to cut to the visceral discontent of the era, to lambast social inequities and incite rebellion. Aligning himself with the Situationists, Reid directs much of his ire towards the avarice of free-market capitalism. His early paintings of suburban homes and cityscapes in the clutches of demonic entities and colossal plutocrats are unnervingly sinister, yet it is his subversion of consumerism and its marketing that is most provocative. His pseudo-adverts welcoming shoplifters and posters of ‘Liberty Leading the People’ endorsing piracy transform passive consumers into active insurgents.
In the second-floor gallery, Reid’s activism overlaps with his spiritual work. His evocative posters campaigning against poll tax, Clause 28 and the Criminal Justice Bill are all on display, as well a large-scale print with the words ‘FREE PUSY RIOT’ stamped above Vladimir Putin wearing a balaclava, mascara and a fetching shade of lipstick. Whereas the topmost gallery had no wall text or interpretations, Reid’s handwriting is scrawled across the walls from this level down. At times illegible and at others enlightening, large swathes of rambling text reveal everything from his love and concern for Pussy Riot to his suspicions that Mars was previously inhabited, from his vitriol towards Brit Art to advocating new dimensions of consciousness. Reid says that painting is his cosmic portal to universal knowledge, a means to reconnect with nature and our pastoral ancestry. His paintings ripple with energy and a kaleidoscope of dancing colours, their circular patterns emulating the eight-fold year of the druids and cyclicity of life. Various incarnations of his OVA symbol are set against a riot of prismatic hues, the circle symbol with overlapping A and V proselytising victory for anarchy.
The ground floor is given over to a huge tepee adorned with Reid’s own distinctive iconography and a large-scale projection showing a documentary-style video of his work. A disco ball spins in the conical tent and the silhouettes of Boudicca and OVA are sketched against the canvas; Anarchy in the UK bounces off the walls before drifting away to be replaced by the rhythmic beat of the bodhran and the entrancing sounds of Celtic music. The perennial spirit of punk lives on, and Reid is sowing the seeds of a new rebellion.