Turning the World Upside Down: On the Work of Liam Jolly
Liam Jolly is a full-time artist, sometimes music promotor, part-time musician, and extra-curricular gallerist. His itinerant practice moves between spaces, materials, people and platforms. While multivalent, Jolly has two loose but distinct strands to his work: the studio remains an important part of his experimentation with form and materials and yet, perhaps untypically, he merges an interest in painting and installation with an expanded practice that encompasses collaborations with community groups, buskers, chefs, football clubs, writers and second-hand car dealers.
The frame of his work can often be hard to discern, persistently situated at physical and conceptual thresholds. He is as interested in how and where we encounter art as much as the artwork itself. Drawn to materials such as car mats, plastic bags, sportswear, T-shirts, Lidl catalogues and pages from glossy art magazines, he merges high and lowbrow and is engrossed in glossy, vernacular objects that resonate with working-class culture. He applies serialist and minimalist strategies to this popular iconography, exploring how motifs transform through cultural transmission.
The writer Mark Fisher once wrote that the 21st century will be defined by new technology transmitting 20th century culture. For Fisher, culture is characterised by ghosting: a guitar lick sampled from a forgotten Motown tune is rehabilitated in the latest summer smash hit. This interest in cultural refraction and re-mixing characterises Jolly’s work, constellated by his disparate activities.
Take Carn Be Seen and Not Heard, 2022, which encompasses stones taken from a neolithic site close to Jolly’s home. They are arranged on
shelving units to notate a remix of the Amen break achieved in a previous work by playing a game of football (more on that later).
The Amen break is the most sampled rhythm in musical history and was first performed by the Winstons in the late 60s. Many hip-hop fans will
recognise the sample from songs by Salt-N-Pepa, NWA, the Prodigy and others. The Amen break has served as inspiration throughout Jolly’s practice, recursively appearing in projects, most notably in Amen Brother, 2018, in which the time signature is remixed using the visuals from a football game before it is translated into a drum pattern. Football, hip-hop, a neolithic site; deep time and recent time, personal anecdote and communal imagery: the work elides multiple registers. Jolly seems to suggest that the landscape and pop song offer different forms of archive. While the former embeds memories in materials, the later does it through performance and repetition. Jolly reveals both as constructions, spaces and ideas shaped by previous generations with complex genealogies.
Many of my conversations with Jolly have revolved around the ways in which seemingly individuated strategies are, in fact, often communal. Take the imagery of the dagger through the rose, a reference to a long-deceased grandfather who had the tattoo from his naval days. Tattooing, long associated with the military, has long since become mainstream. Its heraldry and associated imagery shifting from self-expressive and countercultural to the ubiquitous. This image of diagrammatic opposites — beauty and danger — has multivalent symbolism but is perhaps, for many, an attitudinal cypher. We can see these shorthand images across our social media feeds; cultural coding that signifies
membership to a particular club or creed.
In Give ‘Em What They Want (A Portrait of Amy Winehouse), 2022, Jolly inverts Robert Rauschenberg’s canonical work Erased De Kooning Drawing,1953. While Rauschenberg rubs out a drawing gifted to him by De Kooning, Jolly overworks an image of Winehouse in pencil creating a graphite monochrome, itself a nod to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square,1915. This updated gesture can be read as more a referential take than the blatant iconoclasm of Rauschenberg‘s work. Winehouse is an apt symbol for Fisher’s assertion of new technology transmitting old
culture. Winehouse was the perfect simulacrum of 60s soul music, an icon for the ages in an era of the iPod. Since her untimely death she has joined the rock pantheon and her legacy lives on through a handful of songs and holograms. Jolly’s erasure is an artistic sample of a musical sample, conflating the monochrome with Winehouse; herself a generational tabula rasa. The blank space, just like the late singer, becomes a site of projected fantasy.
This focus on blankness as a site of imaginative possibility is continued in …And Little Did He Know, It Was About to Begin, 2022 which incorporates motorised curtains made of green-screen material that automatically open at intervals. Green screen is synonymous with Hollywood, used as a backdrop to edit in CGI and here turns the gallery periodically into a stage, the exhibition becoming a site to be seen as much as see.
I’m reminded of an anecdote Jolly once told me about a concert he promoted featuring the Fall. The singer Mark E Smith arrived late on stage after disappearing pre-gig. He spent the next hour or so careening around, causing mayhem, unplugging the band’s equipment, slurring the indecipherable lyrics to Hit the North. During Sparta FC he sang while slumped behind the band, invisible to the crowd. Leaving the stage, he winked at the delighted, but slightly anxious, Jolly, suggesting that the whole thing had been a bit of an act. The history of rock music is the history of bad behaviour, now so ingrained in the psyche of many fans that Smith felt duly obliged to perform it to them.
Jolly’s work explores these moments of code switching; moving between backstage and frontstage personas. A theatre curtain is a threshold between private and public self and Smith’s performance of a non-performance interests Jolly because it purposefully dissolves this line. The exploration of authenticity and originality in popular culture has many artistic genealogies.
We can look to Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow, 2013, in which the Icelandic artist filmed the band the National performing their song Sorrow repetitively over a 24-hour period, the band’s impassioned Americana becoming an exercise in endurance. Much of Candice Brietz’s work has explored expressions of individual identity through the prism of popular culture. Her film work King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) (Composite), 2005, encompasses Michael Jackson fans singing along to his songs, the work creating a collective portrait through Jackson’s celebrity.
The sociologist Erving Goffman — writing in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1956, — bought dramaturgical analysis to social interaction, first coining the term front-stage and backstage behaviour. Goffman’s thesis was that people act differently depending on whether they have an
audience. When we know we’re being watched, we’re much more likely to assimilate within moral and stylistic frameworks, policing what we say and do. This can be extended to different contexts. We’re likely to act quite differently in an art gallery then a night club for instance. Many of our greatest performers understand this dichotomy implicitly.
Jolly takes a dramaturgical approach to his art. Everything and everyone is implicated, becoming a site for intervention and collaboration. Painting, conversation, making exhibitions, putting on gigs: it doesn’t really matter, they are parts in a wider choreography. Goalkeepers becoming drummers, members of the public becoming part of the art, audiences not knowing where the art starts and stops. Jolly dissolves the distinction between front and backstage. He turns the world inside out, upside down and back on itself.
George Vasey is a curator and writer based in Saltburn-by-the-Sea. Recent curated projects include In the Air, Joy & Tranquility and Misbehaving Bodies at Wellcome Collection (2018-22), STUDIOAUDIO, PEER and Resonance FM (2020), The Everyday Political, Southwark Park Galleries (2018) and the Turner Prize, Ferens Art Gallery (2017). His writing regularly features in magazines, journals and books on contemporary art.