In the early Sixties, Gerald Laing was a star of the pop art movement, famed for his paintings of starlets and astronauts.Now, after a break of more than 30 years, he has returned to the pop art medium to express his horror at the Iraq war in an exhibition in London.
Laing was renowned for his paintings of the actresses Brigitte Bardot and Anna Karina and closely associated with the Sixties pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
By 1969, however, the Newcastle upon Tyne-born artist who had made New York his home had become disillusioned with the American dream following the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the Vietnam War. The former soldier returned to the UK, where he settled in Scotland and spent the next three decades devoting his energies to sculpture.
It was the "shock and awe" invasion of Iraq in 2003 that inspired Laing to return to pop art. The bold colours of pop art are present, but the images have a new, sinister edge; the heroes and film stars have been replaced by chilling images from the "war on terror".
Truth or consequences shows a smiling Tony Blair next to an image of the London bus bombing on 7 July 2005. Viewed from a different angle, Blair morphs into George Bush and the bus becomes a city in flames.
Repetition, which has been bought by the National Army Museum, juxtaposes Warhol's famous Campbell's soup tin with a repeated pattern of soldiers, suggesting that war has become another product of capitalism, while troops are seen as "virtual soldiers" rather than real people.
Images of the torture at Abu Ghraib have also influenced Laing, as in Capriccio, which shows two hooded figures, above the familiar pop art icon of a box of Brillo.
American Gothic, inspired by Grant Wood's 1930 painting of the same name, shows American soldiers in combat fatigues giving the thumbs-up over a newspaper image of a mass of bodies in the Iraqi prison. Laing said: "It's a development of the original pop art approach with a different moral attitude. I realised these were the same people doing different things. My starlets had joined the US Army and were working at Abu Ghraib. My pilots were bombing a city at no risk to themselves. It's extraordinary to be at my age and return to this preoccupation."
Born in 1936, Laing attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst from 1953-55 and served as an officer in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers in Northern Ireland before attending St Martin's School of Art.
Serving in the Army, like his father and grandfather before him, allowed Laing to sympathise with soldiers, while condemning the governments who sent them to war. "Most artists abhor the whole idea of soldiers. I don't, because when I was young they were viewed romantically. There are some virtues there that are traditional, timeless."
Laing, whose bronze sculptures include Ten Dragons at Bank Tube station in London and four rugby players at Twickenham, is working on a series of paintings of Amy Winehouse, Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham.
War Art at Stolen Space, The Old Truman Brewery, London E1, from 28 September to 13 OctoberReuse content