True Faith

Manchester Art Gallery, 30 June – 3 September

Joy Division (and their subsequent iteration as New Order) is the second-best band from Manchester. Their story inspired the art in this show, part-curated by Jon Savage, the author of England’s Dreaming (1991), the definitive history of UK punk rock. We find two spaces that neatly mirror the evolution of the group – the still, sad, monochrome seriousness of Joy Division and the movement and pulsatingly colourful playfulness of New Order. The Joy Division room is dominated by Martin Boyce’s Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours (2002) – a darkened installation comprising fluorescent lights and chain dividers that gives a threatening and fittingly portentous air to the proceedings. Boyce’s stark work conjures up a troubling interzone that bluntly harmonises with the unwavering woe of their music.

The walls of this space are lined with works that explicitly reference the band’s doomed singer, Ian Curtis. There’s a swiftly executed Julian Schnabel oil on velvet created in the sad aftermath of Curtis’s suicide, Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis) (1980), which references Peter Saville’s cover for the band’s second and final album, the deeply melancholic Closer. Nearby is a predictable sequence of Saville’s album covers for the band. These are lit softly, with the dutifully worshipful air of a line of Russian icons. The ongoing fascination with Curtis is testified by a grimly enigmatic painting by Dexter Dalwood, Ian Curtis (2001), where one lightbulb glimmers into a void as another smashes. There’s also Glenn Brown’s alienated sci-fi appropriation Dark Angel (for Ian Curtis) after Chris Foss (2002), and Factory Icon (2000/2017), a photograph by the artist Slater B. Bradley in which a putative doppelganger puffs moodily on a cigarette, a composition that intentionally recalls the famous Kevin Cummins shot of the singer.

A tragic Romantic pull persists in the sorrows of young Ian

If there is any doubt that, for other musicians and the artists here, Curtis’s suicide was the most intensely evocative gesture since Thomas Chatterton’s demise and its legacy, then many of the works in True Faith might register as exhibit one. A tragic Romantic pull persists in the sorrows of young Ian. The spinal frisson of his line from the song Atmosphere, “Don’t walk away, in silence”, haunts when you know he did exactly that. Curtis, like the fated poet Harry Crosby, created an irrevocable mythos of a creator perceived as a black sun setting, a negative transcendence. Psychiatrists warn against glamorising suicide, but for the artists in True Faith there is a commandingly persistent mystique in Curtis’s extreme action. Scott King’s screen print Joy Division, 2 May 1980, High Hall, University of Birmingham, England (1999) is a line of lonely dots that captures the isolation of the band. But it’s Mark Leckey’s video Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD (2015) that gets closest to capturing Curtis’s time: a forbidding era characterised by deserted overpasses, space-race bleep transmissions, dread-laden electric pylons deadly to the trespasser, and long black overcoats.

In contrast, the breezy displays in the New Order room are a testament to Michael H. Shamberg’s influence. Shamberg, general manager of the Factory Records label (US), arrayed an impressive list of American artists to work with the group. There are Lawrence Weiner’s brash posters for the 1989 album Technique. Here too are adverts designed by John Baldessari, featuring appropriated photographs with faces obscured by coloured dots, and others by Barbara Kruger, with her trademark font. And there is an exhilarating sequence of pop videos, one done by Robert Longo for Bizarre Love Triangle (1986), featuring Longo’s falling men, and another by Robert Breer and William Wegman for Blue Monday (1988), starring Wegman’s dog Fay Ray – who didn’t they work with?

The Joy Division saga, you might argue, is an overfamiliar one, given the many books about their history, Anton Corbijn’s movie Control (2007) and the ubiquity of the Unknown Pleasures design on T-shirts. But what of Manchester’s number-one band? Well, a Certain Ratio of fellow music fans are bound to plump for your favourite.

From the October 2017 issue of ArtReview

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