DLA Piper Series Constellations showcases the very best of the Tate collection at Tate Liverpool, presenting artworks in ‘constellations’ or clusters to encourage visitors to discover similarities between works of art that at first glance, may seem very different. Northern Soul’s Steve Regan takes a look

The most eye-catching item on display in Tate Liverpool’s new summer exhibition contains at its core a kitsch statue. From a distance, it looks like something you can buy at a garden centre.

On closer inspection, the Roman goddess at the centre of Venus of the Rags by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto turns out to be a modern artefact designed to look good in suburban gardens. It works well here as the custodian of a big pile of gaudy clothes – the kind we’ve all bought from charity shops and never worn.

The work makes you think about the grace and beauty we imagine the world knew in classical times, as well as the detritus of mass consumerism we’ve endured for the past 50 decades or so. Doubtless that was the artist’s intention.

Venus of the Rags is one of the exhibition’s ‘trigger works’, so-called because, according to the Tate’s curators, it had a profound effect on the contemporary art of its day and the work that followed in later years. Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in menswear and accessories (a) Together let us explore the stars, by  Richard Hamilton, 1962And so onto a striking painting with an intriguing yet somewhat prolix title, Towards a definitive statement on the coming trends in menswear and accessories (a) Together let us explore the stars, by Richard Hamilton, the London-born pioneer of pop art.

Hamilton’s painting features the head of President John F. Kennedy inside an astronaut’s helmet – a representation of Kennedy’s 1961 exhortation to humanity to “go to the moon”. Among the other images within it is a diagram of the reflex system from a Canon ciné camera. The first part of the painting’s title, incidentally, comes from promotional text in Playboy magazine. Continuing the theme of space exploration, a 1960s screenprint by Joe Tilson, the English pop art painter, depicts the first man in space, the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin.

Louise Bourgeois, Mamelles 1991, cast 2001Another trigger work is Mamelles 1991, a cast from 2001 by Louise Bourgeois, the French-American artist and sculptor. The moulded horizontal structure is akin to a classical freeze showing a line of women’s breasts. For Bourgeois the work was symbolically critical of men who are like the fictional libertine Don Juan, feeding off women and loving only in a consumptive and selfish manner.

Technology, consumerism, masculinity, femininity and Americana (as seen through British artistic eyes) are among the themes that run through this new display, and there are many big name works to feast your eyes on. In addition to cAspects of Myself, by Grayson Perry, 2001eramic artist and outspoken cross-dresser Grayson Perry are new showings of works by Sir Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi, Nam June Paik and Marcel Duchamp.

This exhibition features just one work by Perry (as far as I can tell) – an earthenware urn from 2001. It’s perhaps not quite as brightly coloured as some of his creations but does feature an image of his female alter ego Claire. Aspects of Myself commanded much attention when I attended the press preview.

Just across from this ceramic triumph is a video art installation which I’d highly recommend. In Painter, a 1995 film show by the performance, video and installation artist Paul McCarthy, we see a grossly-caricatured (rather pig-like) painter creating abstract images on a canvas while panting like he’s having the most desperate and masturbatory sex.

I don’t know if we are meant to regard the expressions on the faces of fellow visitors to this installation as part of the ‘the art’ but watching people react certainly enhanced the experience for me. I saw folk looking gob-smacked, intrigued, bewildered, mildly disgusted and some perhaps even slightly turned on by the on-screen movements and grunting. I for one will never look at viscose paint coming from the neck of a tube in quite the same way again.

By Steve Regan

Photographs courtesy of Tate Liverpool. Photographs of the Hamilton and Perry artworks by Steve Regan, reproduced by kind permission of Tate Liverpool.

Joe Tilson, Transparency I Yuri Gagarin 12 April 1961 1968


What: DLA Piper Series: Constellations

Where: Tate Liverpool

When: ongoing

More info: exhibition is free, details here