ENGLISHNESS is not an especially fashionable subject matter for artists these days, but the paintings of Andrew Heard, who died from Aids on Saturday, show that it was possible to explore national identity without lapsing into either nostalgia or xenophobia. In size and impact Heard's crisp canvases with their smooth surfaces emblazed with slogans, film-stills and cartoons have echoes of James Rosenquist's billboard paintings of the 1960s; but whereas the icons of American Pop Art were Elvis, Marilyn and Jackie O; Heard's heroes were Terry-Thomas, Barbara Windsor and Max Miller.
No other artist has been so successful in capturing the tawdry 'Carry-On' culture of Britain in the late Fifties and Sixties with its forgotten jingles, minor celebrities and suburban sitcoms. Yet there is nothing whimsical about Heard's sharply witty, hard-edged acrylic and screen-printed works, which he once declared to be 'unarty' and like 'a slap in the face'. Like Joe Orton, whose plays he greatly admired, Heard wanted to communicate through barbed laughter; and he yoked familiar - even kitsch - images to his personal vision so that despite their smooth surfaces his recycled images possess an unexpected emotional charge.
The same could be said of Heard himself. Although he wore the ominous regalia of a skinhead he was consistently kind, charming and scrupulously polite. His friendships were strong and his loyalties absolute; nowhere was this more so than in the case of his late friend the poet and artist David Robilliard whose career Heard tirelessly promoted up to and after Robilliard's death in 1988. Amongst many other close friends were the artists Gilbert and George, who first met Heard in the late Seventies when he was working as a waiter at Blitz nightclub while by day studying history and history of art at University College London: 'We instantly became enormously close friends,' they said. 'We admired his art which was original, wonderfully English and told the story of his dear life.'
Ironically for an artist whose work was so tied to his national culture, Heard was best known and admired in Europe rather than on home ground. After graduating from Chelsea School of Art in 1980 he lived for a year in West Berlin and two of his most successful one-man shows were at the Friedman-Guinness Gallery in Germany: at Heidelberg in 1987 and Frankfurt in 1989. He also had solo exhibitions in the 1980s in Athens, Amsterdam, Paris and Zurich.
Recently, however, Heard's reputation in Britain had been gathering some long-overdue momentum. As an artist living in the East End of London, he was selected in 1986 and 1987 for consecutive Whitechapel Open exhibitions; and in 1988 he had his first show in Cork Street, at the Salama Caro Gallery. Last spring he consolidated this progress with Strange Fruit, an exhibition of his most recent work at Connaught Brown Gallery, in Albemarle Street, central London.
The large circular canvasses in Strange Fruit marked a new direction in Heard's work. Pieces of popular (and often pulpy) culture were still spliced with knowing Heard humour, but the colour had lightened and the tone brightened into a dreamy playfulness that was far removed from the uncomfortably mixed messages of his earlier paintings. Cartoon flowers, photographic fishes and pastel colours celebrated themes of love and fantasy, but without losing that undercurrent of unease that is such a Heard trademark.