Wednesday, 21 January 2015 by Lotte Inch
In our latest Staff Picks feature, the Gallery's new Exhibition Intern, Helen Butler, writes about a thought provoking work held in the University's Art Collections.
Richard Hamilton, I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas, screenprint on collotype, with collage and wash, 1971
In a 1957 letter, the Pop artist Richard Hamilton describes everyday consumerist culture as 'Popular, Transient, Expendable, Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, and Big Business'. In I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas, Hamilton uses a still from the 1954 Bing Crosby movie White Christmas, transferring mainstream material into art: a ritualised sphere that typically stands outside of everyday life.
Richard Hamilton, I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas, screenprint on collotype, with collage and wash, 1971 © R.Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2013.
Hamilton made a number of works using this image. His 1967 screenprint I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas features the same frame, yet it appears as a negative. In the Black Christmas screenprint, the colours are reverted back to positive to create a familiar yet strange incarnation of the film still. Hamilton's complicated process from cinematic frame, to etching, to print, switching between positive and negative, hints at the technological trickery of Hollywood movies, yet here, one questions the manufactured reality. The print is edited and filtered through modes of fine art, using techniques such as hand painting and collage. This calls into question the fictitiousness of the movie, which itself relied on processes like lighting, illusionistic settings and colour processing.
Hamilton's work offers an interesting perspective of the effects of an increasingly mass produced, accelerated and technologically centred culture upon artistic production. The form of the copy, rather than being indicative of plagiarism, is seen as an intrinsic and unavoidable condition of contemporary art making in a world of mechanical reproduction. I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas recreates the content of the Bing Crosby still very faithfully, yet does so in a way that it does not ring true. Instead, its de-contextualisation allows for greater reflection upon the mythologised aspects of the media. By elevating a piece of pop culture, Hamilton reveals the desires, values and ideals of contemporary society.
It is worrying to think that our perception of the real is so interconnected with illusionistic media. I find Hamilton's print fascinating because of the uncertainties surrounding its reading. While Hamilton's Pop pieces do not seek to deride or celebrate mass media spectacle, I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas, perhaps ironically, affirms the status of popular culture artefacts. This can be seen to counter the intellectual rejection of popular culture, or perhaps to deliberately provoke by including these references within a piece of art. The title, referring to a 'black Christmas', immediately evokes a sense of unease or cynicism and deliberately counters the romanticised and sentimental nature of the source material. While his choices reflect an admiration of the skill of the filmmaker and recognition of the pleasure this gives society, his work also raises questions surrounding popular culture's manipulative qualities. Full of ambiguity and double-meaning, I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas can reveal a lot about our attitudes towards our own contemporary consumer society.