Peter Blake’s forename is strikingly well-suited to him; he is the Peter Pan of British art, the boy who never grew up. And what a good thing it is for us that he didn’t. Blake’s works fizz with a shy, childlike adoration of the things people actually like looking at — Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe, California, Venice — all observed by Blake with a sympathetic yet scientific gaze. In his current exhibition Peter Blake: A Celebration at Henley-on-Thames’s Bohun Gallery, a celebration of the gallery’s 40th birthday, a selection of the artist’s silkscreen prints spanning the period from 1991 to the present is on display. Surely one of the greatest living printmakers, the works carry with them the rhythm of an unorthodox, idiosyncratic logic that makes all of Blake’s creations so beguiling.
The optimistic whimsicality of Blake’s prints works within a characteristic visual grammar. In Some of the Sources of Pop Art VII, we see the universal touchstones of our culture: Elvis, Coca-Cola, the Mona Lisa, presented to us in neatly juxtaposed squares alongside hearts, rainbows, stars, stripes. The result is an instant visual high: a best bits montage of popular culture. In “I” is for Idols we see a slightly more singular selection of references, organised within the same chessboard-like structure. Movie stars — Judy Garland, Brigitte Bardot — are presented together with Blake’s personal artistic heroes such as Stanley Spencer. They dreamily gaze and blink at us, unified by the quiet beauty of a subdued indigo hue, as though seen through the filter of a camera. Contrastingly in other works it is a blisteringly intense colour which compels us, as found in I Love You: a red heart framed thrice in yellow, green and blue. The potency of the pigment is reined in by the mindful geometric order of the image. Sensitively presented in white frames, these dizzying works are anchored by Blake’s cool clarity of gaze, which may derive from the fact that Blake trained as a graphic designer. This is a show that is about looking forwards as well as backwards. Vintage Blake is a new interpretation of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album sleeve in celebration of the artist’s 80th birthday, in which contemporary figures such as Grayson Perry and JK Rowling appear hallucinogenically corporeal; such is the hyper-vivid medium of silkscreen printing. In other works, Blake makes the unusual gesture of paying homage to artists several generations his junior. The Butterfly Man in Venice – Homage to Damien Hirst is one such example: sticker-like butterflies are scattered across St Mark’s square, pleasurably subverting the expectation that we might see pigeons, above a crowd of figures. Blake’s supreme draughtsmanship is without question; even the artist’s instantly recognisable signature, with its graceful slants and loops, is a pleasure to look at. Silkscreen printing is not the loudest shouting medium, and is one which rewards many-layered thought- and physical-processes. His mastery of the medium, acquired and enriched over a lifetime, really is a spectacle behold. The artist, now in his 81st year, is a grand old master who at the same time recalls the lonely, introverted schoolboy in the yearning escapism of his works; the Neverland presented to us in this gem of an exhibition is irresistible.
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