ART / False colours?: James Hall on satire and trivialisation in work by Adrian Piper in Cambridge and John Heartfield at the Barbican

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IN 1981 Adrian Piper, a thirtysomething New Yorker of mixed black and white parentage, drew a 10 x 8 self-portrait. As befits the possessor of a Harvard PhD in moral philosophy, Piper furnished herself with a face that could launch a thousand theses.

Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features is an abrupt head-and-half- shoulders drawn in soft black pencil. Her face, the skin just turning pouchy, is held in wiry parenthesis by twin tresses of thick black hair, decisively parted at the crown. She is an icon of sad if doughty resignation, a cross between over-the-hill Pre-Raphaelite stunner and photo-booth blank. Her lower neck and the collar of her open-necked shirt are situated at the base of the drawing, but are scarcely delineated. Instead, the white space is given over to a hand-written inscription of the title, and to the artist's signature: Adrian Piper.

There is something mischievous about this claim for copyright. We cannot be sure whether Piper wants to control the reproduction of the self-portrait, or the exploitation of the technique of which it is the end product. Copyrighting the latter would imply that Piper's own brand of cosmetic surgery is a distinguished and marketable commodity, which needs protection from pirates. As such, it is wishful thinking, a gizmo from a post-Michael Jackson age, where negritude is cultivated rather than shed.

But reality soon breaks into Piper's operating theatre of the absurd. Once we compare the doctored self-portrait with her appearance in other photo- pieces and videos, we realise that her metamorphosis has been almost as ignominious as the sprouting of a moustache by the Mona Lisa: she has aged, become hollow-eyed and haggard, a drawn shadow of her former self. This suggests that the more negroid a person is, the worse off they become - the negroid Piper carries the can like the picture of Dorian Gray.

Adrian Piper was a small presence on the New York art scene for 20 years. She served her apprenticeship in the late Sixties as a cooler-than-thou conceptual artist, producing tidily dysfunctional diagrams and maps, before getting involved in the feminist-inspired debates over the politics of representation. Until 1987, however, her career was going nowhere very fast: between 1969 and 1981 she had six solo shows in low profile venues, and from 1982 to 1986, no solo shows at all. Twice she went into two-year periods of what her CV terms 'self-imposed hibernation from the art world'.

But since a retrospective in 1987, her career has gone into overdrive. Now represented by a major gallery, she has had 25 solo shows, including the current retrospective at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, an exhibition which has already graced Birmingham, Manchester and Bradford.

The New York Times, whose pages and pictures have provided raw material for many of her works, went so far as to dub her the star performer of the 1992 spring season. Her success clearly parallels the progressive politicisation of the New York art world.

It is not hard to see why Piper's racially aware work did not strike a chord in the early Eighties. At the time, raunchy Neo-Primitivism was all the rage. The big event of 1980 was the Museum of Modern Art's rehabilitating retrospective of Picasso, the artist who opened the floodgates to tribal art; and in 1984, all these non-European influences were tracked down in the same institution's 'Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art'.

In contemporary art, Neo-Expressionist painters and sculptors were appropriating the primitivising styles of the pre-First World War era. But whereas many of the Neo-Expressionists saw the import of 'negroid features' into their work as a way of pump-priming it with orgiastic, Dionysian energy, for Piper such imports were more problematic.

In her series Vanilla Nightmares (1986-7), she drew eroticised images of blacks on to newspaper articles and advertisements. Her style of drawing parodied the steamy pastels of the Italian Neo-Expressionist Francesco Clemente. The eighth work in the series is based on a Bloomingdale's advertisement for the perfume - or rather, 'the enchantress' - Poison. It has a naked white woman swooning with closed eyes, as her left arm snakes up towards the logo.

Piper has hemmed the woman in with five black men, one of whom strokes her upraised arm, while another kisses or bites her shoulder.

The image thereby conflates two of the most potent 'sexual poisons' - gang-banging blacks and an abuser-friendly femme fatale. The intention is for us to confront our own fears and fantasies about what Piper terms 'the racist's nightmare, the obscenity of miscegenation'.

Piper is fascinated by the subterfuges used by both blacks and whites to cleanse themselves ethnically. Pretend No 1 (1990) consists of two rows of four photographs, overlaid by a red silkscreened text. The first three photographs in each sequence depict well-coiffeured middle-class black males, while the two on the far right comprise a black man on the ground being kicked, and a drawing of chimps hiding their eyes. The text, one word to each picture, reads 'pretend not to know what you know' - the implication being that blacks, as soon as they are successful, become honorary whites and turn a blind eye to racism and social injustice.

In the earnestly educational video Funk Lessons (1984), footage of a multi-racial dance class given by Piper is punctuated by the polemics of white moral crusaders against the corrupting force of 'nigger music'. This is counterposed with concert footage of white bands such as the Rolling Stones who have profited from black influences. Here it seems that black culture can't win - when not condemned, it is plundered.

Piper has been accused - not least by a former boyfriend in a recent magazine article - of pandering to white liberal sensibilities. In terms of her content, this seems unfair. Her refusal to make 'white trash' responsible for every injustice in the world makes her critiques disconcertingly unpredictable, and thus all the more resonant.

Formally, however, Piper's work is weak. There is something anachronistic, even primitive, about her perpetual use of black and white photographs and source material. This, allied to her tendency to present work with DIY simplicity, is meant to signify high seriousness and authenticity, but the effect is to distance the images and lock them into a barren time-warp. Some of her video clips such as those of the Rolling Stones and of moral crusaders do actually come from the Sixties.

Overall one thinks more of the age of Martin Luther King than of Rodney King. Ur-Mutter (1989) includes an advertisement recently made by Jeff Koons, but the garish original is still served up to us in grainy black and white. Such a strategy makes live issues seem instantly obsolete, and turns news into archival material. Yet it is precisely this privileging of the past over the present, of absence over presence, that makes Piper's work so typically Post-Modern.

Still, Piper is not the only modern political artist whose work has been tempered by an excess of primitivism. Primitivism is the soul of photo-montage. The technique is child's play - raw materials are generally taken from the mass-media, and put together with scissors and glue.

The trouble is that the child-like simplicity and scale of the medium often spills over and becomes the message. People - whether they be dictators or peasants, giants or dwarfs - usually end up looking like imbecilic urchins or faux naifs, their assembled bodies as ineptly uncoordinated as dolls and puppets. The Lilliputianising is even more marked when photo-montages are put on vast gallery walls, which is what happens in the long-in-the-tooth John Heartfield exhibition at the Barbican.

The German philosopher Theodor Adorno once argued that Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator 'loses all satirical force and becomes obscene when a Jewish girl can hit a line of storm-troopers on the head with a pan without being torn to pieces. For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialised: which then reduces the political effect.' The film that accompanies the Heartfield exhibition falls into this infantilist trap when it doctors footage of Nazi rallies so that Hitler, in medias res, is made to play with a yo-yo and catch a swastika-covered Frisbee. It confirms the suspicion that photo-montage has been far better at making darkness risible than at making darkness visible.

Adrian Piper continues at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, until 6 Sept; John Heartfield & The Cutting Edge continues at the Barbican, London, until 18 Oct.

(Photographs omitted)