There aren’t many POP artists in Wales, so Richard Blacklaw-Jones who identifies strongly as a POP artist and calls himself “Wales’ premier POP artist” might well be right. What is a certainty, however, is that he is a powerful artist who has a strong and individual style. His star seems to be rising and he’s definitely one to watch.
Talking to him at his recent one man show, I was deeply impressed with his whirlwind of creative energy and the myriad of ways he finds to use his chosen materials. His is not the ordinary brush and paint. He uses exclusively man-made materials, salvaged from beaches! This obviously involves a lot of time searching (and in some cases climbing down to less accessible beaches). Thus, he is striking two nails with one blow – making the environmental point and commenting on mankind’s utter profligacy and thoughtlessness. His art could also be considered a sort of clean-up programme.
At the recent show there were 14 new pieces of work. Most of them were concerned with the problems/issues of the day. Hence the title – taking a pop at these issues through his chosen medium. All are abstract works, but there is enough narrative in them to satisfy the realist, and plenty of room for the dreamer to lose themselves in. The use he makes of such prosaic materials is very striking. Old lino, pieces of signs, bits of children’s toys, cosmetic containers, fish crates, animal feed containers, trainer soles, bits of fibreglass, old tyres, fishing gear. All of this material worn, abraded, pitted and patinated by its period in the sea and being tumbled about on the rocky shore. The materials themselves have a story, beginning with their original (man-made) purpose and then Richard makes them “new and improved” (to use an apt phrase), adding value with the artist’s eye and clever technique.
At first glance, the pictures are very busy, shouty even, but this complexity offers the possibility of absorption. You can step back and experience the overall effect of a composition, how the colours and shapes tone or clash to support the idea being expressed. Step closer and see the detail, how the individual components used have been carefully selected to again support and express the idea in the picture. He’s clearly been at this for some time and his pictures demonstrate a careful and considered mastery of materials and techniques.
To consider in greater detail three pictures, then. Firstly “Cocktails @ Traffic Lights”(see image above ) which stands out in the show for being the only one framed in black square format, suggesting view from a car or train window. This was deliberate, says Richard, to give “the sense of a night-time view”. The picture contains ordered, regular elements set together so as to suggest a cityscape but interspersed with areas of irregular colour or pattern.
Richard says “I was trying for a view of a city by night, there are areas of light and activity, there are areas of darkness and possibly danger, order and chaos and we can never eradicate the chaos. The viewpoint is temporarily static – stopped at the lights if you will – and we’re just absorbing the view, the colours, the energy of the scene”.
His use of parts of a shocking pink flip flop with lettering on it signifies “the noise, both auditory – people’s shouting, cars etc – and the visual noise of a city – flashing lights, adverts, huge scale TV screens and so on”. Little dots of contrasting colours in a regular gridwork turn out to be “the different coloured lights of windows in a large residential block”. The different sizes of the regular elements suggest perspective and looking at it with the above explanations in mind, you find yourself dreaming of a night in steamy Singapore – looking at the views as you move from restaurant to club.
Second, “How Could I Forget”. ( see picture above) One of the largest pictures on show, in portrait format. This has much larger, softer, more organic shapes in it. There are fewer shapes at a smaller scale concentrated in one or two spots. The colours are muted. Altogether the effect is one of multiple perspectives on an open misty landscape. Forms of buildings suggest themselves, clouds appear to hover over distant flatlands.
Richard says “I wanted to convey a sense of regret and yearning over what has been done or forgotten to be done. We are living in a period of destruction and loss, loss of species, loss of languages, loss of environments. Humanity will one day look back and regret this”.
There are no signs or suggestions of life in this picture other than the human footprint (another flip flop) situated top right, which symbolises man’s perceived position “standing on top of the world with everything underfoot, dominating and uncaring”. Knowing all of this, the picture becomes almost unbearably poignant.
Third, there is “Gender Blues” ( see photo above ). Middling sized and not quite square, at a distance it’s very busy with lots of similar sized bits jostling for attention. The first thing which appears is a woman’s face looking wistfully out from the picture surface. Its halftone rendering reminds us of Lichtenstein’s female faces, themselves derived from cartoons and romantic picture stories. The closer one gets, the more the images resolve, handbags, high heel shoes, earrings and bits of jewellery. Crude, cartoonish female dolly faces, cosmetic bottles. Icons of femininity as portrayed to and consumed by our Western civilisation for the last 40 or 50 years. Closer inspection reveals more, lettering or numbers referring to clothing sizes, graphics of hair styles, a woman carrying a pile of dishes, a little tag saying “SELF”. Two pieces of plastic with the letters MISS MOP thereon. A single cartoonish eye with exaggerated eyelashes (mascara, another icon of femininity) looks out at us. The head and torso and single leg and arm of a black baby doll but with Caucasian features and hair. You get the drift of his thinking.
Richard says “Recently there’s been a lot of media talk about gender roles, transgender status, equal pay, equality and a very nasty politicised debate around race relations. I wanted to try and draw attention to the way in which we have such conflicting attitudes to these issues. No one in their right minds would espouse unequal pay, for instance, yet children’s toys and cartoons constantly reinforce wildly exaggerated gender stereotyping. The consumerist obsessions of the female psyche as observed are reinforced by ones finds. Washing up bottles might not be so openly sexist as they once were, but they’re still aimed at and bought by predominantly women. I found the bits over a long time, and thus was able to consider and re-arrange the picture over a long time. You might say there were a lot of ingredients and thus a lot of cooking, and what I’ve ended up with is a sort of stew. There’s lots in it and it should be food for thought for all of us”.
Richard’s exhibition was only open for a couple of days in November 2018 but if you want to see more, he exhibits his work at Oriel Llandudoch/St Dogmael’s Gallery, he has work on sale at SPARK in Haverfordwest or he can be contacted through his Facebook page Beachcombing Art or his website . If you contact him directly, he can probably arrange to show you the pictures from the latest exhibition minus those that have sold as they’ll still be on the walls of Rock House, “but the hall will be a lot less tidy, and much more cluttered with our normal human life”.
All photo’s by Jo Sayers/Panda Bear photography.