Considering the star power involved, both in terms of the subjects depicted and the four well-known clients who commissioned it, it was never likely that Peter Blake would create another work of art as famous as his cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Undoubtedly, that bustling, vibrant image is one of the most enduring pieces of pop art ever created. But a new exhibition shows the work that has existed in the shadow of that famous mob, including some jubilant, Pepper’s-esque pop culture collages alongside lesser-known works, like still life paintings, readymades, and found-object sculptures.
The name of the exhibition, Rock, Paper, Scissors, comments slyly on some of the artist’s most commonly used tools. Blake began making collages in the 1950s, inspired by the work of artists like Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst. But the exhibition, currently wrapping up at the Waddington Custot Gallery in London, proves that Blake has devoted just as much attention to other media in his prolific, six-decade career.
Still, the impulses and interests that shaped those early collages, culminating in the Sgt. Pepper’s cover, which Blake designed with then-wife Jann Haworth, are evident throughout much of his work. Some of Blake’s sculptures are essentially Sgt. Pepper’s in the round—densely arranged dioramas of toys and figurines, often including Snow White and her diminutive coterie paying a visit to some individual or another (in one work, the owner of a Swiss chalet; in another, a bowler hat-clad Surrealist who we can safely assume is supposed to be René Magritte).
As critic Marco Livingstone notes in a piece that introduces the exhibition’s catalog, Blake returned to his favorite subject—the unlikely group, whomever it might consist of—throughout his career. "As an adult," Livingstone writes, "this once cripplingly shy teenage loner has been constantly drawn to such assemblies of striking and eccentric individuals, perhaps out of a romantic attachment to the bonhomie of social interaction and from a desire to have a sense of belonging.
But when you look at Blake’s entire body of work, it’s hard not to identify a persistent playfulness throughout. Livingstone himself finds "a particularly English sense of humour" in the pieces, which gleefully mash up mass-produced toys and art-history allusions.
To some, Blake’s art will seem conceptually potent; to others, it will work simply on an aesthetic level, as series of lively, colorful odes to pop culture. But most important, the exhibition makes clear that there’s plenty more we can do with Peter Blake’s work than sit around trying to figure out who that is above Ringo’s head, between Edgar Allen Poe and W.C. Fields.
Peter Blake: Rock, Paper, Scissors runs through December 15 at the Waddington Custot Gallery in London.