Event review: Jamie Reid’s Short Sharp Shock at RISE Gallery

By - Tuesday 24th May, 2016

Is Jamie Reid’s ‘old Croydon’ a frightening taste of what’s to come? asks Bernadette Fallon

Detail from Sex Pistols mural.
Photo author’s own.

His work sits within a tradition of English radical dissent and he’s been compared to William Blake. He’s stirred up local governments with claims of corruption and his satiric Suburban Press publications from the ‘70s have achieved cult status, as have his iconic Sex Pistols covers. He’s an artist with a strong social and political agenda and he’s still rattling cages and ruffling feathers. He’s also a druid.

And if you want a prescient taste of where Croydon might be headed, get yourself to RISE gallery to see the world that he satirized in the 1970s along with fellow Croydon College rabble rouser Malcolm McLaren.

Yes, the Sex Pistols’ covers are there for the punk fans. As well as Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious and the queen.

His work in the punk years gave an image to the attitude behind the music. But it’s the early Croydon works, the pictures and illustrations from the Suburban Press, that slap you in the face. And, in light of where we’re headed, as apartment blocks spring up like mushrooms and multi-million pound commercial deals loom on the horizon, they’re strangely eerie.

Photo author’s own.

See the ‘normal’ suburban house with a sinister bird of prey, completely dwarfing it, perched on the roof. See the couple returning to their suburban sitting room after a weekend in the country, a scene of blissful domestication… except there’s a huge skull on the floor. These illustrations are taken from the Suburban Press, a community printing press collective formed in Croydon by Reid and a few friends in the ‘70s, producing, as he says, “leaflets, pamphlets, books, anarchist cookbooks, things for women’s movement, the black movement, squatters”. There are drawers full of them in the RISE exhibition, a snapshot of Croydon’s radical history from the ‘70s.

This radical community press, this anarchist commentary, became the base for punk, attacking the greed and corruption of social and political systems that sacrificed human contentment for capital.

Jamie Reid: mythmaker, magician

Sounds worthy? It was, but it was also irreverent: the ‘Save Petrol – Burn Cars’ posters. The ‘LIES’ stickers plastered all over advertisements. ‘Shoplifters Welcome’ in the windows of department stores.

Photo author’s own.

And he’s still doing it. A recent gallery exhibition of his work, housed in one of Tokyo’s famous department stores, saw a lot of very confused retail managers thanking Jamie for his artwork, one of which was a large print proclaiming ‘Last Days – Closing Down Sale’ prominently displayed in their windows.

Born in Croydon in 1947, he hails from a long line of myth-makers and ‘magicians’. He describes his family as “diehard socialists”, saying that he was “always dragged off to peace protests from the age of five, and it sort of had a big influence”. His family was also heavily involved with the druid order. Jamie himself is now a druid.

Much of his work falls within the area of mythology and myth-making, shattering as well as creating. He grew up surrounded by his own myths: great uncle George, the tall ginger Scot who became Grand Druid of the British Isles and reportedly travelled barefoot across Tibet, despite there not being a shred of evidence to back this up. George’s brother, Jamie’s father, was a sea-captain who was reputedly gun-running for the Chinese. (The authorities say that this was impossible.)

He sees pre-1960s, pre-developed, pre-high-rise Croydon as a golden age, with a true community feel and no pressures from the state. It was a time before big business began to look at every square inch of the borough: at what could be bought, what could be sold, what could be developed.

And the past that we’re presented with in Jamie Reid’s art looks frighteningly like the future that we’re moving into.

Photo author’s own.

A shiver runs down my spine as I stand in front of one of Jamie’s illustrations, a vision of a city of the future when shopping streets were imagined as ‘urban playgrounds’. It didn’t happen and lots of Croydon stood decimated afterwards. I look through the gallery window at St George’s Walk, halfway between development and demise. Will this be knocked down for a new ‘urban playground’ of the future?

Strong communities create strong social environments – we see it all around us in Croydon today in the strength of what is created by local groups and organizations. The people behind Croydon Saffron Central, Croydon Tech City, Park Hill Park Friends, Croydon Radio, the Croydon Citizen and many more are devoting un-paid time and energy to make this a better place to live. Will there be space for that energy, all of those community aims, in the shiny penthouse-be-decked re-generated Croydon that is coming?

In the words of his friend and representative John Marchant, Jamie Reid’s unique vision articulates and gives form to some of the key issues of our times.

“He responds to the ever-increasing attacks on our civil liberties and shared common spaces with passionate anger and savage humour, and shows us ways in which we might re-organise our political and spiritual resources. This is the role of the shaman and Reid’s art acts like a lightning rod, returning us to the earth so that we might share the work of healing.”

Could it be time to re-organise our political and spiritual resources?

If you want to catch this exhibition you’ll need to hurry: it’s open at RISE Gallery in St George’s Walk until Saturday 4th June only. RISE is open Tuesdays to Fridays from 10:00 am until 6:00 pm and on Saturdays from 10:00 am until 4:00pm. Admission is free. I recommend that you take a look.  

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette has been a journalist since the age of 7 when she devised, designed and launched ‘Fallon’s News’ – much to her family’s delight. Brought up in Ireland, she was born in Addiscombe where she now lives, though it took her several decades to find it again. She works as a journalist and broadcaster. Follow her at Twitter.com/bernibee

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