Did-ge-really doo? It’s hard not to forget that Rolf Harris is in good artistic company at the Walker Art Gallery. The gallery for me remains safe receiving and housing prestigious artworks. Surprisingly, this exhibition begins with and ends with celebrity indulgence, this is a blockbuster meets legend meets man of the people with smatterings of explicit and implicit messages of you can do it too. On the wall is a clear hand written statement “I love this country.” And why should we doubt him? In the UK our TV screen and the screens in the gallery contain this cult figure speaking directly to us throughout the decades. He belongs to us, his father was a Welsh portrait artist I have you, enough proof!
The paintings selected are show cased in a self-referential way. He pays homage to figurative and expressionist paintings in a non-too serious way, it takes a bold artist to show off with historically established artistic styles, but it left me posing the problematic question, is it a lack of imagination to show how you can produce a Rembrandt or a Monet, would it not be more innovative to develop your own artistic style? However, I did his like his take on Klimt, ‘The Kiss’ and his self-portraits achieve an honesty and clarity giving a personal touch and revealing his genuine love of capturing the subject. His Liverpool and London Street scenes captures the subdued colours of the street, he can also capture light and intensity, such as in the ‘Ayers Rock’ series. Also, ‘Young and Old;’ one of his maller paintings is a touching reflection of his own ageing process symbolising his 65 years as an artist and a man. As a retrospective you really get a feel for his development as a real talent with a wide appeal.
Personally I don’t doubt his versatility or his UK cult status. I enjoyed the exhibition. It cleverly links all his talents and is woven together both chronologically and thematically in a sometimes-erratic but entertaining way.The portrait of the Queen takes a privileged place opposite the doors as you enter via the shop; although the work received mixed reviews his credibility with some in the art establishment is improving. He was the best selling published Artist in 2011 as chosen by the Fine Art Trade Guild. You can own one of his many originals, if you lucky enough to afford it, this fact and the whole packaging of the exhibition reminded me that Rolf is very ‘managed’, as a commercial brand in the art industry he’s doing very well thank you, the art world maybe needing him as much as he needs them; original paintings have been going for £30,000,the painting by Bonnie Tyler was estimated at £50,000 at the Antiques Road Show, its not surprising that the BBC backs him.
The audience for Rolf were also of a respectful age, a few younger visitors to the exhibition watched one of the many TV screens as he sang ‘Two Little Boys”, it melts the heart, just like his Shakespeare inspired double portrait taken from Midsummer’s Night Dream, Tatiana represented by his wife Alwen is a sitter next to a mirror imaged Rolf representing Bottom? It is a touching and
ironic tribute that lifts the spirit and makes you smile. The exhibition could not be complete without the large canvas drip paintings, Rolfs most exciting and spontaneity work for me reminds me of my childhood, the fact that the work looked like he had not quite finished even though he had became his signature look, this meant that we find him accessible and like him even more for being just that bloke from Australia messing around with a paintbrush and loose, generous swiping brushstrokes, the bloke who learnt to play the didgeridoo.
Also uplifting (or just clever PR) is the painting of a male invigilator by an exit near the centre of the exhibition, his portrait captured by Rolf Harris is refreshing, a characterisation of an ordinary bloke, again reinforcing his role in popular culture and accessibility. I had a few words with the invigilator who is, as you would expect, highly delighted and honoured confirming Rolfs and his own longevity, the artist is both revealed and concealed, and omnipotent even at the point of recognition.
Rolf Harris is everywhere this year, its official! Taking part in the Queens Jubilee celebrations, turning up in Wales, Liverpool and London and at the Bafta’s receiving a lifelong fellowship award for “outstanding and exceptional contribution to television”. Rolf expressed that he was “humbled” as did the Queen after the Jubilee celebrations. The boy from Perth and his didgeridoo has wooed a Liverpool crowd although the painting ‘Coffee and Cola’ depicting ‘four lads outside the Cavern’ is a bit too contrived for me to believe that the ‘common touch’ is an inherent natural quality rather than a finely tuned package.