Life of Pop: Meanwhile, across the pond …
This week, in celebration of the exhibition Sweet Dreams, Baby! Life of Pop, London to Warhol, we focus on the Scottish artist John McHale (1922–1978). McHale was a member of the Independent Group, an alliance of London-based artists, critics, writers, and architects in the early 1950s who met and organized a series of exhibitions that brought the visual arts together with design, literature, and music. Considered a major formative influence of Pop art, this postwar collective aimed to raise the status of popular objects and icons within modern visual culture.
Although McHale’s work has often been under the radar, he is arguably one of the most versatile artists to come out of the Group, with varied interests from technology to sociology. His visually arresting work also made important contributions to the understanding of new technologies of the time.
First Contact, 1958 (pictured above), McHale’s largest and most ambitious work, is executed in an Art Brut style, combining painting with collaged elements depicting machine parts, internal bodily functions, and atomic explosions to form a group of figures that appear robotic or extraterrestrial. McHale often depicted figures in his works, but the imagery that makes up these specific characters suggests that electricity drives their central nervous systems and their minds are composed of gear-like mechanisms. Space exploration and science fiction were central interests of the Independent Group and are central themes of this work, evidenced by the otherworldliness of the figures and the title’s suggestion that we are in the presence of something other than ourselves.