Jeremy Deller is a modern day alchemist. This rings especially true in light of his latest exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow – ‘Jeremy Deller: English Magic’ – last experienced in the British Pavillion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Deller has never followed the rules, has none of the traits of an artist and yet his works speak more truths than many. With a sharp and meticulous sense of observation and a willingness to shake things up (but not too much), the Turner prize winning artist proves that he has come a long way from his early works as his left-wing leanings and ideas of equality and social justice take the form of curiously uplifting works that reference the much labored over topic of politics and the Iraq war, but also tax evasion and Ziggy Stardust.
Deller, who studied Baroque art at the Courtauld Institute, has all the majesty of his 17th century counterparts as he weaves magic in the social world of 21st century Britain, summons forth the politics of today and interprets them with a self-conscious critique and celebration – he is as much a history painter as Beuys or Rembrandt. He is not a conceptual artist in the same was as Kosuth, but a sociologist, anthropologist and historian.
The landmark piece of the show takes the form of a large mural where Deller, ever-loyal defender of Venetian legacy, depicts the Victorian designer at loggerheads with billionaire money-magnate Roman Abramovich as he launches his yacht, Luna, into the lagoon. ‘We Sit Starving Amidst Our Gold’ was supposedly sparked by Deller’s fury at the ship’s appearance in the quay during the 2011 Venice Biennale. The Giardini, one of the historic city’s treasures, bastardized by contemporary wealth serves as a harrowing symbol of a recurrent theme in Deller’s oeuvre. It draws on Morris’ call for a socialist reform, the collapse of communism and the capitalist growth in the former Soviet Union.
Deller focuses on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in another work, where he enlisted former soldiers to draw scenes from their experiences. Painted from prison, where many of our troops end up, it is a shining example of his role as an authentic social documenter of modern day Britain. Deller does not shy away from the real.
Indeed, the exhibition captures the essence of Morris’ thinking – “I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few” – and Deller’s collaborative work ethic references the Arts and Crafts ethos. This is an exhibition that encourages visitors to get involved.
Deller’s work may shout where Morris whispers, but the material works brilliantly with the gallery’s permanent collection, as we walk into the 19th century and back into the more familiar world of Deller’s as he puts a contemporary frame on his idiosyncratic vision of Britain and its securities. He is an alchemist, but he is also a catalyst; he makes connections between things and leaves them open. It is up to us to react as we wish, but always with a slice of humour.
Aindrea Emelife is a second-year BA at the Courtauld.
Jeremy Deller: English Magic is at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow until 30 March, before moving to the Bristol Museum and Art gallery then the Turner Contemporary in Margate later this year.