Tom Sutcliffe: The originals are still the best

The week in culture

We live in a culture where lack of originality is one of the cardinal sins, though not all cultures (historically or geographically) share that disapproval and – on the evidence of an exhibition I went to the other day – not all artists live in fear of it, either. The show was Peter Blake's new exhibition at the Waddington Galleries in London, an enlivening and appealing collection of recent work titled Homage 10x5. The theory behind the exhibition is simple: Blake has produced five works in tribute to, or imitation of, 10 artists he admires and has been influenced by. The execution, though, is a little more complicated.

In some cases (the word is doubly appropriate in this context), it looks as if Blake has simply decided to "make one of his own". His homage to Joseph Cornell, for example, takes the essential components of one of Cornell's enigmatic boxes – weathered wood, a plain white watch face, found bric-a-brac, a print of a cockatoo – and produces his own version. It isn't compartmented like the original but it doesn't exactly seem to comment on the original either. I suppose you could say that it has a Blakean inflection to it – in its selection of trinkets. But if you weren't an expert you couldn't really be blamed for thinking it might actually be a Cornell.

His homage to Saul Steinberg, The New Yorker's great cartoonist and illustrator, is quite different, since it takes the form of three-dimensional collages reconstructing Steinberg still lives. The sensibility of both men clearly overlaps. Like Blake, Steinberg was drawn to commercial art, and toys, stickers and postcards, so Blake's eclectic assemblies of just such things on a little square of plywood under a vitrine has the feel of a wish fulfilled, as if he's wanted to make the assemblies on Steinberg's imaginary depicted tabletops come true. And what instantly disappears, of course, is any trace of Steinberg's style. It strikes you as an odd kind of homage, until you glance back at a Steinberg still life (there's one in the exhibition catalogue) and find that the style is almost all you can see.

Then there's what you might call the sacrificial falling short, a genuine act of homage because it involves a real humility. Blake's homage to Matisse (a collagist, like so many of the artists he pays tribute to here) consists of five close reworkings of Matisse's great, late work The Snail, which is currently in Tate Modern. Blake uses a similar palette to Matisse, and roughly similar shapes for his patches of coloured paper.

And in each case, the effect falls subtly short of the original, sometimes because a component is missing and sometimes because the balance is out. It's like an essay on Matisse's sense of composition and spacing, conducted wordlessly through the medium of coloured paper, and it returns you to the original with greater admiration.

Paradoxically, the least successful works here are also the most successful tribute, in part (it's only honest to admit) because I'd never heard of the artist before I saw this show. He's called H C Westermann and this isn't the first time that Blake has tipped his hat to him, because he's also one of the more obscure figures on Blake's famous cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Blake's homages are jolly things – a set of model galleons and three masters which have been manned by competing groups of toy figures. On one, for example, little lead farmers square off against plastic punks, while in another medieval knights are ranged against (and who knew you could buy model figures in this category?) "people being frightened in B movies". These pieces are engaging and funny, but they're also tellingly lightweight when set against the works that inspired them, beautifully carved wooden troop ships which Westermann called Death Ships, in reference to his wartime service in the Pacific, where he witnessed kamikaze attacks on US vessels.

And I'm still trying to decide whether the best thing I got from the show was the introduction to Westermann's utterly unique art or the pleasure of Blake's clever and knowing allusions. I may have to conduct a homage of my own – imitating Blake imitating Cornell – to find out. Who cares about originality?

A star's last, supporting, role

I thought it quite canny of Sir Ian Richardson's family to get his ashes incorporated into the structure of the new theatre at Stratford, buried in the foundations. At least his commemorative connection with the theatre will be more difficult to overturn than poor Lord Cottesloe, demoted to a mere hospitality room to make way for a living benefactor with money to spend. But the thought occurs that Sir Ian's example might be followed in other cases.

As I understand it, human ash has no detrimental effect on the structural strength of concrete – being as effective as any other form of aggregate – and I imagine that there are quite a few people who would like the idea of contributing to a new building in this rather literal fashion, and would be prepared to pay for it. Theatres have filled out their auditoria with sponsored seats before, and raised money with sponsored and inscribed bricks, so in these times of financial stringency why not provide a service for dedicated theatre-goers who want to attend in perpetuity?

I suppose location might be a bit tricky if demand is very high (nobody, I suggest, is much going to want to underpin the floor of the men's lavatory, however necessary this part of the building is to a satisfactory theatrical experience) but given the amount of concrete a building consumes it shouldn't be a problem – and it's probably greener too.

Doctors get what they call "ash cash" for certifying cremations. Theatres should think about getting a cut, too.

When everything clicks into place

What is it about sniper-rifle assembly scenes that is so satisfying? Perhaps I'm wrong in assuming that this is a widespread public taste, but the loving attention directors pay to such moments in thrillers certainly suggests that it is. I even remember a comic sketch that involved a character silently miming every element of sniper assembly, a joke that only worked because everyone watching could be assumed to be familiar with the motions he was going through. There's a canonical example of the trope in the new George Clooney film, The American, this time given an added frisson by the fact that the assembler looks as if she's taken time out from Milan Fashion Week to check out equipment for her next hit. And naturally Clooney's character times her as she transforms a box of components into death from a distance. I'm assuming that it has something to do with expertise – the pleasure of watching any moderately complicated thing being done without hesitation or uncertainty. But there's a bit of machinery fetishism in there too, delivered by the sound of machined metal clicking perfectly into place. And all of this is sauced by the idea of imminent death. I'm as susceptible as the next person to the appeal of the thing. But I hope one day someone will give us an assassin who has to refer to an instruction booklet before each step.