Bursting with colour and energy, ARTIST ROOMS: Roy Lichtenstein displays a limited yet revealing selection from the master of Pop Art who fundamentally altered the possibilities of painting. Where one might expect merely a series of the iconic reproduced cartoon strip frames, you are in fact faced with nuanced self-referentiality: the strength of the exhibition is that it shows the unfamiliar side of this famous artist.
The exhibition presents 16 large-scale screenprints from the 1990s which express Lichtenstein’s long-term fascination with the history of art, his investigations into reflections and mirroring and his late involvement with the subject of the female nude.
In the first room you are faced with reimaginings of the works of Monet and Picasso. “Water Lilies with Japanese Bridge” uses reflective surfaces to directly engage the viewer and interrogate their moment of perception, whilst the act of translating Monet’s infamous painting into his own signature style of commercial mass-production with Ben-Day dots introduces Lichtenstein’s belief in the false dichotomy between high art and low art; that they are both means of communication that rely heavily on code.
Lichtenstein’s nudes develop this further. He has taken the same women from comic books who occupied his earlier work and stripped them down, placing them in domestic settings that create a vulnerable juxtaposition between modern style and traditional subject matter. In “Nude With a Yellow Pillow”, his own water lily painting hangs on the wall behind his subject in another act of blunt self-referentiality. The proliferation of iterated recognisable images prototypical of pop artists is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s repetitive prints: both blur the lines between art and advertisement.
Less successful, however, are Lichtenstein’s three Jazz-inspired compositions. If he was trying to put his lifelong passion for this music onto canvas, then he could not have done so much more obtusely. The staves weave in and out of each other while crotchets and quavers float freely in the pictorial space; the backgrounds are an ill-considered mish-mash of designs and shapes. If this is at all representative of jazz, it would be Dixieland on a bad batch of Mescaline. Lichtenstein beats you over the head with it, like Charlie Parker wielding his sax after a few too many whiskies.
Lichtenstein once quipped: “Picasso himself would probably have thrown up looking at my pictures”, and though his gaudy commercialised aesthetic might induce nausea in some viewers, beyond the kitsch is a visually imposing exploration of how images permeate our lives.