Jeremy Deller, English conceptual artist and winner of the 2004 Turner Prize, is also a self-described ‘artistic curator’. Deller has gained an endearing reputation as a synesthete and often draws on subjects that fascinate him to illustrate links between disparate histories – such as popular culture and his own British heritage. The photographs of wrestler Adrian Street and his miner father, which Deller included in his previous curatorial project ‘All That is Solid Melts into Air…’ are a good example. Once a miner himself, Street struggled to break free from the traumatic past in which his father still belonged, and transformed into a stardom-seeking sport figure in the late 1950s. One photograph in particular showed Street’s father, with coal-streaked skin and somber clothes, next to the glam-frenzied wrestler in a glittery lame costume fit for a rock star. Strikingly contrasted, the figures portray a decadent causality reflected in much of Deller’s work.
Deller’s recent curatorial composition, ‘Love is Enough’ at Modern Art Oxford, marries the works of celebrated artists William Morris and Andy Warhol. These figures represent a social and political resistance to industrialisation through Morris’ career, or enterprise and belief in capitalism’s promise for Warhol – yet ’Love is Enough’ draws upon harmonious relationships between the two. The title of the exhibition is taken from Morris’ late literary work by the same name, about a king who gives up his kingdom on a quest for love. Although simplistic in theme, its complexity lies in the formal structure of distinct coupled witnesses, who respond to an inner narrative of love and music. It is also a tale of life’s lonely journey, of which there are ultimately no defining words.
The first gallery looks at their fascination with mythologies of empires. Morris’ ‘Holy Grail’ tapestry holds court as a prominent centrepiece at the entrance, lending insight to a youthful enchantment with medieval legends he once embodied in solitary, imaginary games long ago. In the same room, the heart of Warhol’s practice is unveiled in a benevolent collection of Hollywood photographs he began acquiring when removed from the outside world, during a childhood illness. A Shirley Temple lithograph dedicated to Warhol hangs next to a woven tapestry of Marilyn Monroe, illustrating where the candy-coloured washes may have found their early aesthetic influence.
The second gallery presents a bold yet tenuous parallel of both figures as political artists. Morris was a prolific writer and champion of socialist ideals - a dissident force at the onset of oppressive working conditions during industrialisation. Warhol, on the other hand, was far from engaging in similar activism, creating a potential parody of capitalism through a full embrace of it. However, the darker subjects chosen by Warhol - ‘Electric Chair’, ‘American Race Riot’, or the ‘Map of Eastern U.S.S.R Missile Bases’ reveal the artist’s deep sensitivity to alienation and injustice irrespective of his assumed triviality and amaurotic love of celebrity culture. It is at this point in the exhibition where the tone and text of ‘Love is Enough’ begins to ring true, as it relays ‘love woven of bitter death and deathless fame’.
The final gallery couples the artists in their aesthetic inspirations and working processes. Similarities in Warhol’s skilled draftsmanship and Morris’ exquisite craftsmanship remind viewers that both pattern-makers’ legacies remain in the fabric of everyday life. And yet beyond divergent individual achievements, an undeniable commonality can be found in their desire for art to belong to many, and the communal value of the artist atelier. Perhaps it is here that we can understand Deller’s affinity for both artists, given the collaborative nature within his own venerable practice.
Morris’ dedicated tender to replicate the flora he believed in jeopardy at the hands of industry, and unresolved social decay, stemmed from his ‘frustration as an organising guide to action’. And Warhol, who notably achieved celebrity cult status, somehow remained in absentia – an observer of the spectacle he created. What comes through in the exhibition more than philosophical or aesthetic similarities is an endless pursuit of elusive beauty through artistic practice – and love for a quality that is in the world, but perhaps not of it.