You can’t accuse the Serpentine of spouting liberal orthodoxies all the time. One of the largest paintings in the museum’s Hervé Télémaque retrospective commemorates conservative Jacques Chirac’s resounding victory in the French presidential election of 2002.
It’s a democratic festival, complete with cartoons of Jacques Chirac from Le Monde. Figures taken from a picture about lynchings by the legendary African-American artist Jacob Lawrence appear at the bottom of the joyful canvas.
There’s also the ominous undercurrent. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, was Chirac’s opponent for the Élysée Palace. That’s what made the triumph so delicious, even if you weren’t a conservative and worried about the election.
This unfortunately irrelevant work of art neither cheered nor disturbed me. It fails to bring recent history to life. That’s one of the issues with painting.
A canvas painted hundreds of years ago can be devastatingly immediate, yet one painted today can be a dusty relic. Even in France, I’m not convinced the 2002 election is much remembered.
And, by Télémaque’s standards, this is a rather recent incident. Among the stories told by this Parisian pop artist are US military activity in the 1960s and André Breton’s death.
Pop art is one of the most out-of-date forms of art. The majority of its practitioners are now museum artists who have become lost in time. Who wants the papers from yesterday?
But let’s see if we can get through them. Télémaque was born in Haiti in 1937 and moved to New York at the age of 20 to escape the cruel reign of “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
You can see him wrestling with the complexities of francophone culture in one of its quintessential modern expressions — the Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s Tintin stories – as soon as he arrived.
A circular 1966 image of a caricatured black face, straight out of Tintin in the Congo, hangs at the entrance of the show. However, it is a bizarre self-portrait as well as a backhanded homage to Tintin’s creator.
Télémaque admires Hergé’s crisp, precise lines, even though he can exhibit the ugly racist aspect that others see in him. Two pairs of Hergé-style underwear hover in front of the face.
Télémaque raids the bandes dessinées, where Roy Lichtenstein recognized the beauty of American teen comics. Inventory, an Interior Man, from 1966, depicts a huge blue tent that looks so Hergé-like that you almost expect Captain Haddock to emerge from it.
But that’s where the good times end. This image may be undeniably pop, but it’s part of a completely cryptic constellation of autobiographical material.
Télémaque seeks to transmit an inner mystery that blows the seemingly solid, common forms of pop art into abstract nebulae, founded in his experience of psychoanalysis as well as colonial history. You attempt painstakingly to identify them at first, but the inedible mixture gradually defeats you.
I was almost thankful for the educational captions because they gave me something to focus on. How can the very basic visual language of pop incorporate expressive autobiography, empire history, and race politics all at the same time?
It turns out that it isn’t possible. The more depth Télémaque tries to impart to pop’s transitory surfaces, like anglophone pop history painter RB Kitaj, the less convincing, or affecting, his paintings become.
There are also sculptures. The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock displays a single line from TS Eliot’s poem of the same name – “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” – by painting coffee grounds on a rough carved piece of wood. There are echoes of exploitative labor in the Caribbean and Africa once you know it was created with coffee.
But there’s nothing in the work that suggests that. The Eliot reference, on the other hand, feels a little too weighty to be resting on a piece of driftwood.
His paintings merely sit there, waiting for some arrogant jerk to decipher them. “While at the bottom of the canvas is a reference to the history of slavery through the semi-abstract depiction of a chain gang,” adds the caption, “Drift n1 is about Africa and the Americas.”
To put it politely, it’s semi-abstract. I challenge anyone to guess what this painting is about without being told. It simply appears to be ornamental, overly complicated, and hermetic.
The Serpentine’s program is where the true drift is. Why is it suddenly so important to show this sought-after Parisian artist?
Because he works with people of color? He accomplishes so, however, in such a weird, hazy manner that it hardly seems to be his true focus.
In fact, I don’t see any sort of trend here.