Derek Jarman: Brutal Beauty, Serpentine Gallery, London
I once owned a painting by Derek Jarman. I bought it for next to nothing at a provincial auction where I suppose I was the only person in the room who recognised the signature of Michael Jarman as being the young Derek Jarman. It's possible of course that even if it had been signed Derek Jarman then nobody at the auction would've paid any attention. For all the coverage Jarman receives in the media I doubt that he even enters the mind of 99% of the British public. This was an early work, probably more a set design than a painting, it was mostly pink and green and white and I didn't really like it but nobody else bid so it was mine.
I gave the painting away to somebody who adored Jarman and thought it the most generous gift. (By contrast I know somebody who had owned a Peter Doig painting – now also showing in London at Tate Britain – and many years ago gave it to a now ex-girlfriend. It was a small painting from their shared student days and nothing like the quality (or size) of the £5.7 million "White Canoe" but he still cries if you mention it to him.)
This new Jarman show has no early paintings. It is mostly devoted to his film work. One room shows "Blue". Another has ten video screens set up which simultaneously show silent Super 8 films. The other room has curator, Isaac Julien's new film "Derek". There is nothing wrong with the documentary. It's interesting and well put together but it seems rather wasteful to devote an entire room to something that could easily have been shown as part of the complementary film programme already running at a nearby cinema. This way puts too much emphasis on Julien's own film-making.
There are just a small group of late paintings crammed onto a tiny wall, that they are dull works from his "tar" period is beside the point, opposite which are some of his totemic beds, mattresses with objects stuck on them with tar like a Rauschenberg combine had got washed up on the shingle after a tanker disaster.
I sat in a beanbag and watched the Super 8s for 30 minutes or so. At one point, serendipitously I presume, somebody was raising their arm in each of the random images - a dancer, Jordan near a fire, a woman with a mirror – ten images interconnecting and then drifting apart - a wonderful chance occurrence and quite fitting. Jarman always painted best with the lights of a movie projector.
Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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