Monday, 4 March 2013

Review by Burt Random of Spannered Books

‘Where Is Iron John?’

There are many benefits to being alive in the industrialised northern hemisphere on what feels like just the wrong side of the bell-curve, with western civilisation plummeting towards some darker future based either on Bladerunner (best case scenario) or The Road (worse case…).
Sanitation, food, and running water are the most important obviously – less important (but more enjoyable) is the way that the decadent creativity of countless people, who a bare one-hundred years ago would have never been given an opportunity, can fight through the post-industrialised malaise of the UK and strike out into self-driven creation without fear of failure.

‘Where is Iron John’, an art book from Bristol-based artist & photographer Acerone (aka Luke Palmer) is a perfect case in point. This slim volume, a collection of reproductions of his huge art-prints, his illustrations based on these prints, and photos of his 2012 Art-El organised exhibition at London’s Apricot Gallery, is built around a samples of writing from Robert Bly’s bestseller: ‘Iron John – A Book About Men’. 

The text explores aging and parenting and the strange bubble made of care and fear that parents live in, and the economy of Bly’s words finds beautiful parallels in the stylised paintings of Palmer’s that frame them. The work, with its roots in the Grimm Brother fairytale ‘Der Eisenhans’ that gave the world the myth of Iron John, is strong and vibrant and detailed, and is testament to the strength in depth of Bristol’s famous graffiti scene. 

Palmer was one of the huge wave of artists that have blossomed and bloomed in the fertile artistic underworld that grew out of Bristol legend John Nation’s work at Barton Hill Youth Club in the 1980s. As part of the late-90s FSH hip-hop crew his ‘Acer1’ tag spread across the city in intricate letter-forms and big-wall experimentation, though he was always taking photos along the way, entranced by the ability to capture and comment on life with a single well-chosen image. 

Now that the Bristol powers-that-be are positioning the city as an artistic hub, trying to co-opt the rebellious spirit that has always thrived in its murkier corners, someone like Palmer can have his work on museum walls, but it is worth remembering where his art came from, where its roots hold firm: outside of the normal art industry rules and beyond the grip of polite political society. It grew and developed under its own steam, alongside a generation of other artists, all finding their own cracks in the concrete to colonise.

The change from this street-level existence to galleries and art-books is a difficult one for any creator, and is one that mirrors the difficulties of transitioning from grown-up-boy to man-with-child, the consideration of which lies at the heart of Palmers current work. The fragility of parenthood, the need to buy-in to the idea that the Sex Pistols were wrong and there is a future, seeps through it all.
The key pieces have a sense of breath being held, of the best being hoped for; double exposure photographs show the silhouettes of London statues – strangely funereal when removed from their bustling context – merging with the smudged headlights of inner-city traffic. There is a sense of time passing, a sense of enforced self-examination, evoked by the streaks of lights stretching across the various paintings, all based on Palmers late-night time-lapse photography. 

These are senses that are familiar to many fathers in 2013, to any man who is trying to do the right thing without being a wanker, trying to be a good person without being cloying, trying to be a good dad without having any real understanding of what that might mean, just aware that, at times, it hurts and it’s hard; as Bly says in the text: “No one gets to adulthood without a wound that goes to the core.”

Bly explores this concept through the visualisation of a series of knights – red, white and black – to symbolise different stages of emotional and empathetic development within boys becoming men, and Palmer converts these concepts into commendable artwork. The painting called ‘White Knight’, for example, shows a statue of a knight on horseback rearing towards us, while fragments of mysterious buildings are faintly visible against it’s flank, the buildings purpose unclear – offices? Homes? A prison? Could be any of them. 

The knight’s sword is stretched in a strong downward vertical on the left of the canvas, its tip the perspective point for streaks of light that blast beyond the viewer, heading from a past we’re not sure we understand, towards a future we cannot even imagine. 

Good men, good fathers, are scarce in literature and art – pain and violence and heartbreak being so much easier to write and create – but we need good role models to help us as we grasp for meaning in our own lives and worry about the meaning of the lives of our offspring. Looking at ‘Where is Iron John?’ I remembered reading a letter written by Ken Kesey* (author of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest) after the death of his teenage son. 

Writing to friends about the pain and suffering of witnessing his child’s last few moments in the hospital, where he and his wife had agreed to turn of the life-support and to complete the forms that would let their sons organs go for donation, he said: “So Faye and I had to sign five copies apiece, on a cold formica countertop, while the machine pumped out the little “beep…beep…beep…” in the dim tangle of technology behind us. In all my life, waking and dreaming, I’ve never imagined anything harder.”

Despite not imagining anything harder, Kesey still did what needed to be done. And this brings me back to Palmers work, a strange mash-up of classical photography, spray-can attitude, and the inherent optimism of fatherhood; ‘Where is Iron John’ is a smart collation of words and images that reminds us that we must all try our best to do what must be done – no matter how uncertain the future or how much it hurts. After all, if not us, who? And if not now, when?

*The Kesey letter can be found at the fantastic blog/soon-to-be-a-book ‘Letters of Note’, curated by Shaun Usher: Go and have a look, there’s some amazing stuff there.

Bert Random is the author of ‘Spannered’ – a book about the Bristol free-party scene, go to for more details

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