Marcus Harvey has never been one to shy away from provocative imagery. He’s still best known for his notorious Myra, the grim grey painting of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley’s police mugshot. Built up from multiple children’s handprints, it became almost the logo for Charles Saatchi’s aptly titled Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy in 1997.
At the time, Harvey declared that he regarded the handprint as “one of the most dignified images that I could find. The most simple image of innocence absorbed in all that pain.” It could be argued that the largely media-fuelled furore over the painting – which was attacked with eggs and ink – only served to vindicate his original intention: to make the work stand as a critique of the way that the press had treated the Hindley story.
Nearly two decades later, Myra reappears alongside Margaret Thatcher as a pair of limited- edition prints for sale to accompany Harvey’s most recent exhibition of multimedia works at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. Here, Mrs Thatcher is also represented in a number of none-too reverent guises. These include as a huge, pneumatic reclining naked bronze figure, complete with joke shop false breasts and a pig mask emerging from her hip. She also appears as a terrifying rouge-daubed, be-ruffed hybrid of Iron Lady and Good Queen Bess in a polychrome ceramic sculpture in which – to add insult to injury – she suckles a white and black baby doll, while a vulture and parrot perch on her head.
The title of the Jerwood exhibition is Inselaffe, an amiably derogatory German term for British people, meaning ‘Island Monkey’, which Harvey first heard many years ago when working as a dishwasher for a German chef. “There was a battle of insults going on and the head chef threw out the term ‘inselaffe’...I thought it was quite a weak comeback, but actually it was more politically insightful than it seemed,” he remembers.
The show – which largely consists of work made either this year or last – forms, in the artist’s words, “a portrait of my own culture: proud and heroic, and also queasily guilty.” Of course given recent events, it couldn't be timelier to present an artistic exploration of what it means to be British right now. Inevitably Britishness, Harvey style, is a pungently powerful, complicated and often contradictory affair. He says his aim was to “strike a balance between a kind of Beano, comic book, seaside picture-postcard atmosphere and something darker and more defensive.” He certainly has not pulled his punches.
Unholy alliances abound. In one giant bronze Archimboldi-esque Historic Head, the face of Winston Churchill grows out of the nape of Hitler’s neck, and Nelson’s death mask emerges from a mass of grasping, clutching hands. A ceramic bust of Nelson (using the death mask again) sports Napoleon’s hat and the Blue Peter logo on his chest.
In this exhibition we are frequently at sea – in all senses. Giant paintings on inkjet photographic prints of cloudy skies and ominous oceans depict looming, unwelcoming White Cliffs of Dover or fantastic fortresses rising out of the waves; while other pieces sport masses of found objects cast in ceramic. These pile up on beleaguered vessels which seem to become overburdened ships of fools. Sometimes these conglomerates of seemingly random objects combine to make up images in their own right, most notably a wonderfully Monty Python/Terry Gilliam-like giant foot, cast from assorted detritus and descending from on high into an expanse of empty water.
What makes Inselaffe so striking is not only its wealth of references from culture high and low: whether the painterly Sturm und Drang of Baselitz, Kiefer, Beckmann et al; or the dark, slightly manic humour of Guston, Gillray and Steve Bell, mixed with scavengings from the skip, pound store and party shop; but also Harvey’s bold, consummate skill in corralling all these elements to such formidable visual – and psychological – effect. This is an audacious, ambiguous, important show that constantly and deliberately slips between media and messages. As such, it forms a timely and utterly appropriate comment on our troubled and troubling times.