A visit to the Keith Haring exhibition in Liverpool
I don’t often leave an art exhibition crying. I mean, I don’t make a habit of it. Especially when I tell you the content of this exhibition was brightly coloured and often highly sexual. And it wasn’t kink crying, because I also would never throw that kind of shade! But that is how the recent retrospective of Keith Haring‘s work, in the Liverpool Tate, ended for me.
Day to day, we at Luke +Jack associate Keith Harring with Tenga. Tenga is a Japanese, sex-positive masturbation brand for men (for reference, sister brand Iroha exists with a range of non-penetrative toys for women’s pleasure and relaxation). These “cups” and “eggs” (Think Kinder Surprise, with a different surprise!) have clean-lines, no-nonsense, no titillation labels and covers. They don’t look like body parts, and someone who found them in a bedside drawer would not know what they are UNLESS they also own them. One particular Tenga Cup and Tenga Egg range are highly decorated with a concentration of the attention-grabbing motifs Keith Harring is famous for. A guaranteed portion of the sales of these items goes to the Keith Harring Foundation, with permission from the Harring estate.
Keith Haring (born 1958 and died 1990) was part of the legendary 1980s New York art scene. He partied, he celebrated, and he collaborated with Grace Jones, David Bowie, Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and thousands of people of all ages who formed the communities of New York. His distinctive artwork of vibrant block colour and strong black out-lines embraced activism. As a contemporary artist, if he’s not a household, name most people would recognise Haring’s distinctive style. It accessibly addresses, educates and challenges anyone who enters its path, whether on the blank subterranean billboards of the New York Underground, in the music and club scene, in political pamphlets, on oversized tarpaulins, or the more organised gallery artworks or community projects.
In the Tate, Haring was laid out in room, after room, after room (I have never been to an exhibition where one artist’s work so necessarily commanded so much space); traversing neon club room artworks, the chalk art graffiti that has been miraculously saved, a full-sized monochrome wall artwork so long that it runs almost the entire length of a huge gallery wall. Haring’s work is an assault (I was going to say tweely “of the senses,” but no, I just mean an assault. It is addictive, it creates a high with sex and humour and irreverence that likely sums up the performer side of his nature. All cows and aliens, crawling babies and dogs, genitals and violence.
The exhibit had wonderful voyeuristic tensions… We stopped to watch other gallery-attendees, and their responses could have been a day-trip all in itself.
The scale, and urgency, and energy of Haring’s artwork, and relentless of the intent as he demands you think about slavery (in every sense), drug addiction, racism, (the evilest depths of) politics, the environment, homophobia. But this doesn’t mean that Haring’s work is without celebration. It is often about the communities who live out their lives, and survive, on the streets, and celebrates them (so often involving these very communities in the large-scale creative process). One such celebration is a stories-high mural that can be found being hit by the strongest summer sun on a quiet side street in Piza. We were reminded how we found it by accident a few years before, after a weird walk from the airport that suddenly found us in the madness of crowds pretending to prop up the leaning tower. Here, Haring allowed us some respite and meditation after the selfie-driven-madness. The mural’s bold colours and unapologetic motif radiated a sense of local community. And CELEBRATION. Keith haring knew how to celebrate. His work all embraces celebration without ever weakening his messages of protest.
So at the Tate in Liverpool, my partner and I were laughing, were voyeuristic, and playful (as anyone else who opened up themselves to be at this exhibition, in the presence of Haring’s work). Along with other visitors, nearing the end of the exhibition we were near child-like, relaxed, but also open and raw to the messages we had been fed: both Haring himself and the curators of the retrospective understood this. The defiant simplicity of the medium. We learned that the mural in Piza was Haring’s final large scale community work before he died. Haring’s life was cut short by (what would have then been bluntly called) AIDS.
He lived and died as one of the many people (mainly gay man) neglected and vilified in the Regan era, left without medication, left without a clear understanding of what was happening, left to die.
The final smallest room of the exhibition shows footage of the protests where people marched and protested the inactivity, the stupidity, the greed, and moral high ground that led to even more HIV-related deaths. An ACT UP film shows people throwing the ashes of their dead loved ones onto the lawns of The Whitehouse, in desperation, in protest, to be SEEN. This desperation is the evident new ingredient in Haring’s Artwork addressing this at the time. His messages IGNORANCE = FEAR, and SILENCE = DEATH still uses the same motifs and still engages using the same distinct imagery.
And then the exhibition ends.
No gentle goodbye. Well, there was an oversized image of a smiling Keith Haring, smiling wryly and skateboarding, or something akin to flossing, but I could not see this as I was crying. Sudden raw reminders of the meaningless loss of lovers and friends, and people I only knew to nod to who were suddenly gone due to HIV, then the mourning, the helplessness, defiance and the anger, and then finding a voice to protest. And Keith Harring had found a declamatory visual language to tell it all.
Final large-scale, bright-blue highly-sexual depictions of anger and birth and rebirth played out in hydra-like forms, supporting the protest art in a poster, and survival manual-form. The observer is taken full-circle through Keith Harring’s work, and his own life and death. As someone who lived through this era and was lucky, and survived, the memories Harring depicts bite like his wonk- faced dogs. I admit we foolishly chose a busy cool eatery after the leaving and chewed through the exhibit and our burgers and sweet potato fries in near silence. We were on a bus home before our quiet discussions began to again bring us thoughts of his energy and bright coloured dancing men move towards celebration, and feeling slightly high.
When we returned to the Luke +Jack shop in Glasgow, the Keith Harring egg took on a new life when I next saw it, It sums up his work so well. It’s sexual, it promotes safer sex and sexual health, and sexuality… it’s unapologetic and sexy. How often do you get to put your penis in a can and it’s a celebration of sex and life and living?