By Daniel Reskin
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By Hannah Sentenac
Tackling "Toffee Armistice: British Art Now" at Lemon Sky Projects' new space can be vexing. Without a guide, one might be mystified by the intricate labyrinth of cross-references informing this brawny yet intelligent show.
Curated by artist/writer Martin Sexton, the exhibit brings together 26 UK artists whose work collectively delivers a biting autopsy of Grand Britannia and its relationship to the rest of the world. The show has the impact of a raised middle finger emerging from the sleeve of a London punk's black leather jacket.
Sexton, whose fingerprints appear everywhere, seeks to decode contemporary British art. "The conceit of the exhibit is to examine the unruly mysticism, pageantry, the swinging Sixties, Stonehenge, Romanticism, royalty, Camelot, and all the classical associations of Britain as seen through the prism of a world view," he explains. "These artists are blowing up all that pomposity in a darkly Pop Noir way."
Near the entrance of the space, Toffee Armistice 52nd Queen Stamp depicts a gas-mask-muzzled Queen Elizabeth II pasted over a foulmouthed screed about the commercialism of the art world, spilled bodily fluid, and anarchy.
The large digital print on paper is a collaboration between Jimmy Cauty and Sexton, who provided the searing text. Sexton says England has been considered by Republican hawks as the U.S.A.'s 51st state or "another aircraft carrier" in America's arsenal in the war on Iraq. He argues that the rest of the globe has been co-opted by the Bush administration in effect becoming the 52nd state.
"We are trying to collapse the contemporary narrative in a fashion that can be immediately grasped. It's like taking Tolstoy or Joyce and using the weapons of the media machine to condense information," Sexton explains. "The machine wants to disenfranchise us and stop people from thinking. The artists in this show are not afraid of being political."
In fact much of the work here is not only remarkable for its meaty polemic but also slathered with heaps of ribald humor.
Some of the most astonishing images are by infamous street artist Banksy, whose work went from cultural-elite disdain to supernova practically overnight. Known for his anti-establishment, antiwar, anti-capitalist message, Banksy has provided Lemon Sky with limited-edition prints that include a lesbian Queen Victoria straddling a strumpet's face, and Winston Churchill sporting a sod Mohawk.
The Churchill piece, called Turf War, was inspired by an anti-Iraq war protest in which rioters tore strips of grass from a London park and placed them on the bronze noggin of a statue of the late prime minister. The act left the ruling class coughing up caviar.
Another one of his works, plastered over a No Parking sign attached to a pair of tire rims, is called Americans Working Overhead. It depicts a U.S. helicopter gunship mowing down a crowd of people who are scrambling for their lives.
The artist's most subversive work in the show is a counterfeit ten-pound note featuring Princess Di on the front and Charles Darwin on the back. Issued by the "Banksy of England," the bogus bill urges the bearer to "Trust No One."
Nearby, Beatles on Fire, a digital print by Cauty, reproduces the iconic Abbey Road album cover with John, Paul, George, and Ringo ablaze. Cauty cofounded KLF, one of the seminal British acid-house bands of the early Nineties. He earned notoriety for torching a million quid of his own cash on the Scottish island of Jura in 1994.
In an adjacent room, Alexander de Cadenet weighs in with a pair of digital pictures of the former heads of England's top spy agencies: Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former chief of British Counter Intelligence; and Dame Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5. They both allowed the artist to zap their skulls with radiation for his series of "skull portraits." Before posing for de Cadenet, the spymasters had to sign off on an "ethical protocol," stating they were aware the radiation could shave weeks off of their lives.
On an opposing wall, "the best UFO film ever made," according to Sexton, plays on a tiny video monitor. He says the artist, who chooses to remain anonymous, "abducted" the footage from its original owners and sent it to Industrial Light & Magic, where it was "certified as real, but they didn't know what they were certifying." Shot on July 4, 1998, in Southampton, England, the footage shows what appears to be a skeetlike disc peeking out from behind clouds and then zooming in for a closeup.
One of the more unusual works in the exhibit is an untitled installation by the Truth Machine, an anonymous collective that has been cheekily called a "cult religious group," the curator says with a smirk. The group takes its name from James L. Halperin's sci-fi novel about a man who invents an infallible lie detector that helps create a utopian future. The curio-cabinetlike piece houses a glass case holding William Blake's skull meerschaum pipe, a bowler hat, and an x-ray portrait of the Dalai Lama's right-hand monk in the UK. A gold Beatles LP is nailed to one of the cabinet doors, and inside the contraption a video clip shows The Avengers' John Steed and Emma Peel swilling champers and learning to paint.