I first read Matthew Collings’ work in the 1990s, after he began making TV programmes for the BBC and publishing books like Blimey! In one of those weird connections created by modern technology, he is now one of my Facebook friends – thought I don’t claim this as a particular badge of merit, seeing as he’s ‘friended’ about 35,000 other people, too. However, this recent connection made me pick up Blimey! again, to see whether my generally positive memory of it would hold up.
The title, suggesting a mildly ironic exclamation that someone confronted by early 90s Young British Art would make, sets the tone of the writing: deadpan, literal, consisting of emphatic and declarative statements, employed to apparently mocking effect. I say ‘apparently’ because although he does send up art world pretentiousness, his aim in talking about Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sara Lucas, et al, was not to do a hatchet job on them. When he likes something, Collings’ creates these long, rhythmic, run-on paragraphs that are full of penetrating visual analysis, as in this description of Hirst’s A Thousand Years:
|A Thousand Years (detail), Damien Hirst|
"But this impurity of flies was so fantastically impure, though still perfectly chiming with another 60s art tendency, process art, and another, truth to materials art, that the whole thing seemed not just correct and a la mode. It seemed correct and a la mode but a bit hilariously silly and gruesome and theatrical and new and endlessly poetically metaphoric and expressive, as well."
Clearly Collings didn’t want to write a standard history of British art – but he didn’t want to not write a good book about British art, either. It’s too long, and gets a bit boring here and there, with just a few too many pages consisting of one paragraph descriptions of visits to an artist’s studio and an attempt to sum up their work in a ‘what’s it all about, eh?’ tone of voice. But mixed in with this are hilarious and waspish descriptions of all the different art scenes, schools, and movements in British art throughout the twentieth century, plus a lot of memoir material about his own bohemian upbringing and art education (his father lived for a few years with the sculptor Elizabeth Frink). Blimey! ultimately succeeds in its ostensible purpose: to find a style to describe a moment in art in a specific place and time, and to provide a definitive portrait for the age.
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