Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool.


Art When New York artist Keith Harring exhibited at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1982, true to form and in keeping with his belief that art should be as accessible as possible, he turned the space into a night club, with florescent lighting, break dancers and his partner DJing in the corner.  Such an approach was not unusual for Harring.  He first became noticed for his subway works, in which he'd masking tape a piece of black card to the curved wall of a pedestrian access tunnel and draw his images free hand in white crayon.  He was arrested several times for this, but he presumably knew that if he was able to draw a crowd then with his images, symbols and themes that he was on the right track.

For their retrospective, Tate Liverpool have created a black light room in order to give us a flavour of what it must have been like in that gallery in 1984.  Inside are a number of his fluorescent paintings, shining brightly under ultraviolet light, his familiar mix of three eyed faces, barking dogs, pyramids and headless beings accompanied by a speaker stack pumping out 80s disco from a compilation available in the gift shop.  The effect is transportative, representing one of the key achievements of this exhibition, much like the Warhol show a few years ago and Glam before that, of placing the artworks within their chronological context, heralding those of us who lived through these times backwards in both memory and emotion.

There was only one reaction I could have to this.  I danced.  On entering the space during yesterday's press preview, throwing caution to the wind and entirely forgetting about my latest hernia, I began to shift my legs about in time with the music.  Slowly at first and then slightly more pronounced.  The image was probably hopeless and at the age of forty-four could quiet correctly categorized as Dad dancing despite me not having any children.  I shifted around in circles like a demented George McFly letting the images and beats flow over me.  A visitor wandered through and smiled as she took photos the paintings.  She asked if I was enjoying myself.  I nodded. I was.  I could quite happily have stayed there all day.

Except there is so much more to see.  Unlike some recent shows, this Keith Harring retrospective fills the whole of the fourth floor.  Although his career barely spanned just over a decade, he was incredibly prolific.  Beginning with his aforementioned early work from his time at the School of Visual Arts on East 23rd Street, to his street art, his activist works protesting apartheid and nuclear arms to his part in the Club 57 scene, onward to his drawings then his more commercial works and finally the material he created around the HIV/AIDS epidemic as he watched his friends die, Harring following in 1990 at the age of 31, not slowing his workflow down at all.

This is incredibly accessible artwork, visually legible and also incredibly profound.  Harring didn't like to offer explanations and most of the paintings are untitled and the Tate have declined to give contextual labels.  Instead as you enter the space you'll find a small visual dictionary which provides some background to his repeated symbols, the baby, flying saucer, figure with a whole in his stomach, nuclear, tv, computers, robots, religion and money.  The meaning behind the juxtaposition of these shapes is rarely cryptic.  A man riding on the back of a leviathan with a Commodore Pet like computer for a head stomping on what look like police murder outlines of decapitated corpses is probably about the dangers of rampant technology.

Obviously I'm most drawn to the apocalyptic images of flying saucers bringing about the destruction of humanity, his simplistic representations of people escape through rooftops only to be exterminated by death rays raining from above, joining the piles of corpses below.  Sometimes robots are involved just to add to the misery.  Along with the grotesquely portrayed many breasted hermaphrodites accompanying by what look like nuclear reactors in the shape of mutant rabbits, it's like witnessing a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape drawn in the style of an early nineties Nickelodeon cartoon, The Garden of Earthly Delights starring Ren and Stimpy. 

What's perhaps most impressive about Harring's technique is that he created these drawings and paintings freehand, mentally planning the structure rather than, as might be inferred from just looking at photographic reproductions, filling in pre-draw pencil outlines.  Much of the time he'd paint on the floor in acrylics, base colours first then the lines of his subjects on top blurring the lines between painting and performance art, especially when creating in public.  One of his largest pieces, The Matrix, spans an entire wall at the Tate, ten metres of dense imagery, almost all of his usual symbols, structurally improvised in front of an audience.

Due to work commitments, yesterday was my first Tate preview in a while so it helped that it was an artist I'd (a) heard of and (b) already liked.  Harring's bold creations helped to define the 1980s and inspired plenty of the design work of the era.  Although I was a teenager then and would not have known he was the source, stepping into the space took me right back to then, leafing through Smash Hits Magazine looking for Kylie interviews.  That we didn't get to see how Harring's work would have developed in subsequent decades is a great loss.  But the crises he highlighted back in the eighties continue to surface and it's up to us to heed his message and act accordingly.

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