Arts: When fame is in the frame: In a gallery in Hackney, art from the heart of rock. Andy Gill applauds its intentions, and forgives its pretensions
Some, like the gold-on- black symbols from his Faith album donated by George Michael ( pounds 800- pounds 1,000), or Bono's music box containing his Fly sunglasses, a few cigars and one of his old AmEx cards set in resin ( pounds 1,500- pounds 2,000), are of primarily historical import, while others, like Brian Eno's camouflage pieces ( pounds 500- pounds 700 each), have a quirky conceptual presence. There are a few obvious homages like David Sylvian's Intensive Care (For J B); judging by the wax and felt involved, it's for Joseph Beuys ( pounds 400- pounds 600).
There's even (or perhaps, inevitably) a contribution, Wood One, from Paul McCartney. An old hand at this charity lark ('It's good fun, keeps me off the streets), he admits he doesn't have much of an explanation for it other than that 'it's a nice- looking piece of wood with a few marks on it', and says, 'I chain-sawed it out of me woods. It took a couple of hours. In here, they've put it up for, like, pounds 1000 or something - the aim is just to earn a bit of money and direct the focus of attention to this charity. That's good enough for me. I don't think a lot. I'm pretty thick really.'
He seems almost apologetic - perhaps because this, his debut piece, is expected to fetch around 10 times the pounds 100- pounds 150 predicted for the small but perfectly formed Man Ray-influenced images by his wife Linda, a well-respected professional photographer. But then, as the former Ultravox vocalist John Foxx (a dab hand, on this evidence, at cross-hatching) explains, 'Attention makes value, as Brian says, so I imagine I'd choose work by the most famous stars.'
Maybe he'll be bidding for a brass-rubbing of a Thomas Crapper manhole cover submitted by Billy Bragg. 'Well, it's a Warhol-esque thing, innit, elevating the everyday to art,' he blags briefly. 'Nah, it's because I'm crap at drawing. It's almost like a tracing, innit? And also, I thought, I wonder if anyone else is going to do a Thomas Crapper manhole cover? At least I'll
Bragg sees himself as part of the don't-give-up-your-day- job section, a heading which could also cover artistes as disparate as Kirsty MacColl and Frank Black. Some of the works score on other than strictly aesthetic grounds: if you buy the photo of Nigel Kennedy's graffiti'd Jaguar XJ6, you get the car itself as well (POA). And oddly one of the more amateurish-looking efforts on view, two pieces of cardboard with things stuck on them, turns out to be by a professional designer, Vaughan Oliver.
But some of these celebrities can actually handle pen and brush with some panache: you could justify the funding of our art schools simply on the strength of their contribution to British pop. You can't deny the technical polish of works by Vic Reeves (a cartoon in the style of Buddy Hickerson depicting Elvis and Frank (Sinatra) on their way to the shops, pounds 250- pounds 500); Billy Childish (a two- sided African-styled painting of a mermaid, a snip at pounds 100- pounds 120); the Levellers' Jeremy Cunningham (a red and blue woodblock print of a machete attack, pounds 200- pounds 250); or, in particular, David Bowie.
Bowie's series of 14 prints, which come in a boxed set, are very impressive. Collaged from various images scanned into a computer - a perspective grid pattern from a computer game, video stills and photographs, and a charcoal drawing by Bowie of a well- endowed Minotaur - they constitute a representation of an apocryphal play by one 'Joni Ve Sadd' performed at the Globe Theatre in February 2002. 'Joni Ve Sadd is an anagram of David Jones (Bowie's real name),' he explains. 'The idea is that, me being a Joni Ve Sadd admirer, I've collected all this memorabilia that surrounded this play. It's a fictitious set of memorabilia.'
Yes, Bowie is reinventing himself again - not only as Joni, but as a considerable figure in the art world: he recently contributed a massive profile of Balthus to Modern Painters magazine, and his collection of contemporary works range from the carvings of Glynn Williams to a Peter Howson painting rejected as too disturbing by the Imperial War Museum. Being a collector, Bowie is well- placed to give a few tips on what to bid for come 4 October. 'I'd say 30 per cent of it is stuff that I'd seriously think of buying. In fact there are four pieces that I will probably go for,' he reveals.
'Specifically, I think Kate Bush's pieces (Someone Lost at Sea Hoping Someone in a Plane Will Find Them and Someone in a Plane Hoping to Find Someone Lost at Sea, pounds 200- pounds 300 each) are absolutely terrific, wonderful. A very, very nice, serene, slightly romantic piece of work, very feminine. And this guy Ian Dench is tremendous.' Bowie gestures towards a Dench triptych, Rugby Posts 1, 2 and 3 ( pounds 50- pounds 100). 'It talks about line, it talks about life. I love the way he closes in on his object - as you read from left to right, he's closing in on these two objects. I think the way he uses his pencil is very authoritative: he uses his aggression as an artist, but doesn't let it run rampant. For technique, John Foxx is fabulous, and I like Eno's pieces as well. In fact, we're standing in front of one, Limbs of the Superheroes (the severed, muscly arms of Masters of the Universe figures, set in resin, pounds 450- pounds 550) - it's quite nice. Brian wins always with his sense of irony.'
Indeed he does. Eno, the show's curator, operates as usual in the narrow area where wit and irony teeter on the edge of cynicism, something he's at pains to forestall here. 'The biggest crime in England,' he acknowledges, praising the bravery of the contributors, 'is to rise above your station. Sell chemical weapons to dictators and you'll probably get a knighthood, but the moment a pop musician picks up a paintbrush, or a model writes a book, then the knives will really be out. It is symptomatic of English culture, I think, that we've developed cynicism and sarcasm to an extremely fine art. It provides us with some very interesting television shows and some very good comedians; but unfortunately, when it's generalised across a culture, it creates a culture which is prohibitive and restrictive.'
For Eno, the War Child initiative is important as a fund- and attention-raiser about the Bosnian situation. 'But what's equally important is that it's a morale raiser for the people in Bosnia: what makes a huge difference to them is knowing that they haven't been completely forgotten. They're Europeans, they know all these musicians, they've got Underworld and Paul McCartney records, and to know that these musicians have a little thought for them makes a big difference.'
'little pieces from big stars': Flowers East Gallery, 282 Richmond Road, Hackney, London E8 to 9 Oct. Auction: 9pm October 4, at the Henry Moore Gallery, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7
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