Pop Art practitioner attacks Iraq war

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Gerald Laing, 1960s Pop Art contemporary of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, has picked up his paintbrush again after 30 years to campaign against the Iraq war.

Using a combination of Pop Art imagery and techniques but 21st century themes, Laing, who turned his back on the medium in the mid-1960s in favor of abstract art before moving into sculpture, has created a series of striking pictures.

“These show the decay of the American dream. We are losing freedoms very fast,” Laing told Reuters on the eve of his exhibition in London’s Stolen Space gallery.

“Things like freedom of speech that we took for granted in the 1960s have already gone,” he added.

Images of naked and humiliated prisoners in Abu Ghraib jail that shocked the world, Tony Blair and George W. Bush and the bombing of Baghdad are given the Pop Art treatment and combined with items like Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup can.

“I think Warhol’s soup cans are an extraordinarily banal and boring idea. It requires a massive suspension of disbelief and a great deal of sloppy thinking to describe them as art,” Laing said.

“I really do feel that sort of thinking is what gets us into the shit time and again. Not being intelligent enough and understanding enough and knowing enough,” he added.

Laing, born in northern England in 1936, said the role of works such as his was to take a snapshot of society and freeze it in time so people could always refer back to it and the message it was trying to convey.

He specifically mentioned Pablo Picasso’s Guernica painting of the Nazi bombing of the Spanish town, noting that it brought the event to the world’s attention and marked it in the collective consciousness.

“It is the duty of the artist to take the event and say this is what it is like -- and a picture does that far better than a photograph,” Laing said.

“These pictures make a point. They will always be there for people to see. Blair may be gone from office -- with Bush soon to follow -- but these images will endure,” he added. “They are a constant reminder of these shameful events.”

Laing accepted that if campaigning pictures evoking the horror of war were designed to stop war happening again then they had failed but insisted that they still had a role.

“Maybe some day people will realize this has to stop because the stakes are now so high. It didn’t stop what is happening in Iraq and may not stop what may happen in Iran -- but you can always hope,” Laing said.

One image changes as the viewer walks past from Blair in front of a bombed London bus referring to the July 7, 2005 attacks on the city’s transport system to Bush in front of a burning Baghdad marking the “shock and awe” U.S. bombing campaign in March 2003.

But the overriding theme is updated Pop Art -- despite Laing’s observations on Warhol’s soup can which has become one of the abiding images of the era.

“Pop Art like every other art form has its time and place. It was right at the time and then I moved on because of its superficiality. But it works here,” Laing said.