Michael Landy takes a wry view of the world. Since the 90s his work has addressed the pressing political issues of the day, as well as delivering a good portion of autobiography. Talk to him about the political targets of his work, and like as not his sentences end half finished, with a tight smile and a sigh and a resigned shake of the head.
Another characteristic of Landy’s work is his tendency to exhaustiveness. Perhaps this is a quality that underpins the absolute integrity of his voice. His most famous work, Break Down (2001), saw him destroy all his worldly possessions. It was no stunt. At the end of the process he walked away with nothing but the clothes he stood up in. Pockets empty. A later fascination for the self-destroying machines of Jean Tinguely led to a large series of black and white drawings to reproduce images of a performance of one of the machines in the garden of MoMA, New York. The metaphorical power of Tinguely’s self-destroying machines was as strong in 2009 as it had been in 1960.
I rehearse these episodes from earlier in Landy’s career because the new show is compendious in referencing earlier work, as well as introducing lots of new material. The installation is immersive, composed of dozens, maybe hundreds of irregularly sized paintings on paper. It is significant that the show is in the intimacy of the artist’s studio: the subject matter of the work is so rich and various, it feels like being inside Landy’s head. Familiar logos – Twitter, Marlboro, Pinterest – rub shoulders with macabre little pictograms, and alongside these newspaper headlines like “Dad at 13” remind us of the moral panic much-beloved of our tabloid papers. There are painted newspaper head-shots of Angela Merkel and the elegantly graphic Black-Scholes equation, the mathematical calculation that was the foundation for sub-prime mortgages.
Interspersed with this are monochrome copies of famous works, or fragments of works: Picasso’s Guernica so resonant in the light of the crisis in Syria, Ed Ruscha’s unmistakable gothic typeface News and bowler-hatted city gents from Georg Grosz’s interwar Berlin. There is a little bit of hero worship here. Then there are the idealised landscapes that were part of his Scrapheap Services, and quotations from the Tinguely series Joyous Machines. What prevents the overall experience from being cacophonous is that Landy has rendered everything in red and white, and this device has the effect of flattening the values of such disparate material. Old and new, high and low culture (can we still talk in those terms?), all have equal presence. Presented as a dense collage, or mosaic even, of torn fragments, the installation mimics the information saturation of our digital existence, but move in close and each painting is achieved with the immensely satisfying attention to detail one always enjoys with Landy’s work. This is gloriously analogue work after all, and what Landy has to say cannot be confined in 140 characters. Required viewing, people. Chop chop.
Michael Landy: Breaking News, Michael Landy Studio, 60-62 Vyner Street, London E2 9DQ. Open Wednesday – Saturday 11.00-18.00, Sunday 12.00-18.00, until 1 November 2015. www.thomasdanegallery.com
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