Conrad Atkinson, "The Wicked Proposition of the West"
Left: The Wicked Proposition of the West, 1995
From the catalogue "Mining in Technicolor"

Over the last 25 years, Atkinson has employed many strategies. His work marries the traditional mimetic impulse - reproducing the world so as to better understand it - with the contemporary urge to evaluate data. Thus, he has juxtaposed pay-packets with ticker-tape, related videotaped confessionals to literature's classics, and "remade" objects from newspapers to clothes to land mines. Frequently, his viewers are deluged with information: statistics, billboards, flyers, invoices, letters, graffiti. But, always, their assembly has a formal propriety. For the artist applies meticulous care to how he orders it.

Of course his process has been shaped by art history, by predecessors such as Schwitters and Paolozzi. But critics who link him too tightly with conceptualists (even contemporaries like Joseph Beuys or Hans Haacke) make a comparison that Atkinson himself resists:

"Throughout the '70s and '80s, I felt very much resentment at being bracketed in with that group of conceptual artists who utilized language and installations and image and text...It seemed to me that the conceptual art movement was profoundly academic and rooted in an attempt to corral practice and marginalise it...My models were Wordsworth, Shelley, Dickens, Dylan and Presley...the popular poetry of the streets with a call to action."

That reproach comes from 1991, and the introduction to a reprinted 1983 lecture ("The State of the Art & the Art of the State"). In the same Introduction, Atkinson describes his text: "What I'm offering is not so much a resolution, commentary, history, political analysis or an academic working through of themes...I'm presenting an agglomeration of feelings, events, observations which I hope produce a meaning through their texture, rhythms and their sounds." It would be a fair description of his art itself, for that art works very much through projected layers. Relying on the viewer to participate, Atkinson sets in motion numerous outward ripples - a provocative counterpoint of referents and resonances. Over the years, he has distilled this more and more clearly. As curator Laurence Rinder wrote in 1996, "his latter work has become increasingly poetic, elliptical and open-ended in nature."

But Atkinson's work differs from art whose ideas require an art-world context. His newspaper cuttings and stills are not "about" advertising or photography. They are about people, their situations and their thoughts. Atkinson has managed to avoid much modernist vanity, and the self-involvement physical objects can exude. He always makes an attempt to work quite openly - so what you know about his works is not exclusively visual. Fundamentally, what you know comes from shared human experience.

The starting-point for everything, he likes to note, is always a thorough questioning. "I always try to look at something, then extend it outwards. I'll ask, 'OK, what does it this bus pass really mean? What is its real value to the person who bought it? What can it do for them? What is it worth - economically, emotionally?'

Then: 'What are the things which make it so?'" He sees the found object as radiating consequence. But he presents them by making traditional choices. Atkinson carefully considers spatial balance and grouping. As he puts it, "I still make the kinds of formal decisions I made as a painter. I have to do it that way, to achieve coherence." Says the young English artist-activist David Campany:

"There is no Conrad Atkinson signature style; he doesn't even have the consistency you find in Hans Haacke. But signature style can be an excuse for ignoring form. And form is one of the things Atkinson really considers."

Campany, whose own photography and billboard work is issue-based, is typical of many younger artists moved by Atkinson's stance. (In 1978, when he mounted the New York show called Material, a young American art collective renamed itself in homage to Atkinson, as 'Group Material'.) For several generations, his work has been a strong influence. It is not even so much that they know his name, but that - in Britain's art world - he pioneered their tools. Atkinson is deft at intervention; he makes it feasible for "low" art to comment on "culture".

continues

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