Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Buffalo Stance: The Legacy of Ray Petri

The frills and furbelows of the short-lived New Romantic Movement having been consigned to the back pages of fashion history, a maverick collective made up of photographers, designers and artists, under the loose direction of stylist Ray Petri, quietly defined a particular look of 80's urban youth culture, the legacy of which continues to influence contemporary trends in fashion and photography to this day.  Many have defined the eighties as the decade in which style dominated substance, but Petri's work under the 'Buffalo' collective was, in many senses, the antithesis of the 'matt-black designer decade with which we have come to view the decade that was to follow after the punk explosion of the seventies had irrevocably re-written the rules of style and politics. Post-punk, style magazines such as The Face, I-D and Arena began to  posit  Petri's work as a pointer for all that was to follow, and the blueprint for an uncompromisingly urban style that has since inspired a generation of designers, stylists and photographers who saw themselves as outside the 'normal' confines of the industry. Buffalo seemed the logical product of the do-it-yourself post-punk generation, and the antithesis of that self-serving careerism that defined much of the eighties in Britain and the United States. Initially difficult to interpret by the mainstream, the Buffalo aesthetic was first and foremost, concerned with a certain kind of hip, urban attitude that rapidly filtered into the mainstream. 

Petri's vision for Buffalo can now be viewed as prophetic, shadowing as it did, contemporary fashion's 'post-gender' identity, and laid the ground for the merging of sportswear with high fashion, a trend that is now seen as universal. Construed as a multi-faceted 'state of mind', Buffalo pulled together influences from a number of seemingly random sources, melding pin-sharp, layered tailoring with the famous MA-1 flying jacket (an essential element of skinhead attire), vintage Levis and lace. Headgear was everything from bowlers to Native American war-bonnets. Nothing, it seemed, was off-limits. Hugely influential, and undoubtedly the style-bible for the decade, The Face defined the way we wore and heard during the heady years of its duration. Editor Nick Logan consciously steered the content of the magazine in increasingly more diverse directions, and spearheaded the still-undefined Buffalo style in many of its issues. The groundbreaking cover that featured a male model bare-chested under a military jacket and sporting a kilt with a Union Jack slung over one shoulder was to influence the likes of a generation that included Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier, and it is more than probable that the mainstream would never have witnessed the likes of David Beckham in a skirt without Buffalo's legacy in the 1990s. Jamie Morgan, undoubtedly the most significant photographer of the Buffalo movement, was responsible for one of the most iconic covers of the magazine's history, the 'Hard' issue that featured Felix, then a 13 year-old east end boy in a formal chalk-strip jacket, knuckle-duster gloves and a feathered homberg with the legend 'Killer' cut from a 'Red-top' headline. The image was groundbreaking, and was followed by other, equally iconic covers. The 'Hot' issue saw model Nick Kaymen (forever identified with the Buffalo collective, as well as the famous Levi's ad campaign) in a skiing hat with aviator shades and whitened lips, an orange elastoplast fixed across one eyebrow. 

Writing in 2007, designer Kim Jones stated; 'Ray Petri is an inspiration for most people in menswear. He worked with a loyal group of people to create a new aesthetic, and his references were so on-target that they are still relevant today. This is extremely rare in fashion, where everything seems to move so quickly'.

Petrie (he later dropped the 'e') was born in Scotland in 1948. At the age of 15, his family moved to Brisbane where he formed a band called 'The Chelsea Set', playing R&B classics and Motown covers. Sensing that his life in Australia was becoming too provincial, he came to London in 1969 and launched himself into the emerging gay club culture, and undertook classes at Sotheby's in order to learn about the antique market. By the early eighties, British club and fashion culture has become a rag-bag of post-punk style, where sartorial fragments of the past had converged and taken to the streets. Petri somehow found his calling as a sort of fashion arbiter, and as an overseer, began to develop an innate sense of what was required to create an image that would last in the ever-changing universe of the fashion genre. Rather than relying on agency models and gym-buffed blonds, he cast mixed-race teenagers and dressed them in designer clothes that he paired with underwear, sportswear and vintage pieces, and the effect was uncompromisingly tough and sexually charged. Recalling Ray Petri, photographer Jean-Baptist Mondino says: 'Ray created an entire personal world' and 'was obsessed with 'bad boys, Jamaican culture and Native American imagery, and was always surrounded by a crowd of beautiful people. [Buffalo] was a true collective - in a way it reminded me of the Surrealist movement, but everyone was cool and relaxed...'

Mondino, who over the years collaborated with Petri on videos and editorial spreads, sees him more as a designer than a stylist. 'He reshaped clothes to create silhouettes that simply did not exist at the time. He loved the idea of classic Italian tailoring done in a Caribbean way. From the front, the boys appeared effortlessly dressed, but in the back they were completely pinned, tucked and taped. Ray was obsessed with extra-long shirt sleeves, so he would cut them off at the shoulder and re-attach them with big safety pins so they stuck out under suit jackets...'

Much of the Buffalo look was defined by the juxtaposing of differing sartorial elements; boxer shorts and army boots worn under a trench coat or Lonsdale genital protectors worn with lace tops and knitted bobble-hats. He took the name for the emerging group of photographers and stylists from Jacques Negrit, a bouncer at the Les Bains Douches nightclub in Paris, The management employed a private security firm staffed by imposing men from Guadeloupe who wore the famous airforce MA-1 jackets with 'Buffalo' emblazoned on the backs. It was claimed also to be a reference to 'Buffalo Soldier', Bob Marley's famous song about black infantrymen who fought in the U.S. Army against native American tribesmen. Petri's posse wore the cobalt-blue version of the jacket, which became a sartorial byword for the Buffalo style. Singer Neneh Cherry was to cement the movement with her 1988 hit 'Buffalo Stance', which spread the word about the style throughout the world. Cherry met Petri en route to Tokyo, where he was producing a show using London teenagers as models. Says Cherry; 'None of us were into here-today-gone-tomorrow fashion, which is why we gravitated to one another. Ray was always consistent, and he taught us that we shouldn't be afraid to be honest'.

Poised to receive the mainstream recognition and financial success that many in his slipstream enjoyed, Petri became infected with the AIDS virus. 'He was one of the first well-known personalities in London to get the disease, and at the time, not everyone knew how to react' stated milliner Stephen Jones at the time. 'Sometimes, people would move away from him at fashion shows, or they wouldn't invite him at all'. A notable exception was the designer Jean Paul Gaultier (for whom Petri was a huge influence), who held a front-row seat for Petri until his death in 1989. 'Ray died just as fashion was becoming more commercial' concludes Jean Baptiste Mondino. '...but I don't think that he would have approached things any differently than he always did. Most of his friends have made some money over the years, but to tell you the truth, we get a little bored a lot of the time...'

Buffalo photographer Jamie Morgan, writing after Petri's death, opined that 'Ray, being gay, wanted to show that a man can be sexy, well-groomed, beautiful; all the things that are now associated with gay men. He made it okay for heterosexuals to own that, whereas only women had before. Buffalo is very, very inclusive for all men, and you see it now when someone like David Beckham wears a sarong. He would never have worn that sarong if Buffalo hadn't put a man in one...'

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness

Few examples of iconic packaging have sustained the longevity of the Lyle's Golden Syrup Tin. Against all odds (and probably little resistance) its design has endured without significant alteration for almost three hundred years, save perhaps the bringing of weight and content descriptions into the 21st century (and, for example, on the occasion of the Queen's Golden Jubilee, where the distinctive banner over the lion was appended by an impressive crown and a cheer of suitable lettering to mark the auspicious occasion).

Born in Greenock in 1820, Abram Lyle was, by the 1860s a successful owner of a fleet of ships that brought sugar from the West Indies. In 1881, he sold his shares in the company and with his three sons, opened a new refinery on the Thames at Plaistow adjacent to those of the sugar cube magnate Henry Tate (these two giants of the sugar industry would later merge in 1921, forever lending legendary status to the partnership). Lyle's problem was to effectively turn the bitter, hitherto wasted by-product of the sugar-refining industry into the sweetly viscous syrup for which his name is perhaps best known throughout the world, and it was a research chemist named Charles Eastick to which the task fell. Eastick was an expert in the specific properties of sugar and its refining process, and Lyle wasted no time in employing his services. Almost an overnight sensation, the syrup was initially dispensed from wooden barrels for local consumption and it was in 1885 that the first distinctive green and gold cans with their cryptic Old Testament imagery began to appear on cornershop shelves. 'Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness', and the seemingly eternal mystery of the lion which defines the very essence of the tin's design, relates to an episode from the Book of Judges, and to Samson in particular. Judges relates the slaying of a lion by the strongman whilst en route to woo a prospective wife from among his Philistine oppressors. On returning homeward, Samson discovered that a swarm of bees had made a honeycomb within the dead creature's carcass, and he availed himself of its sweet delicacy. Here then, is offered up a riddle with which he confronts his oppressors during the wedding feast that was to follow: 'Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness'. The image of the dead lion with his emerging swarm of bees has intrigued us down the centuries, and remains perhaps the most tantalising aspect of the product's distinctive packaging, and the element by which the tin is regarded by millions with nostalgic affection. There is also perhaps,  a further, slightly tangental dimension to the image of the recumbent beast and his swarm of insects - that which centres around the ancient concept of Bugonia, or 'The Ox-Born Bee'. Bee Wilson, in her groundbreaking study of man's eternal relationship with the honey bee, discusses what is perhaps the oddest of all ancient theories on the origins of how these creatures came into existence and how their species were generated and sustained, namely, that they were somehow spontaneously fashioned from the dead body of an ox. The Latin poet Ovid (43 BC - AD 18) declared that 'Swarms rush from the rotten ox, and one extinguished life produces a thousand'. The notion that a decaying carcass might give birth to living bees is fanciful by any standards, yet bizarrely, this was an accepted explanation for the existence of bees of more than 2,000 years. In part it was a reflection of the yearning of man to control the miraculous creatures and, by extension, thereby to have domain over death itself.  The Greeks coined this supposed process of creation Bugonia (literally 'Birth from an Ox') and since both creatures were revered in equal measure, opined that the death of one might give rise to the life of the other. Columella, an agricultural expert writing in the 1st century AD, went so far as to believe that oxen and bees were related. In Rome, the process of apes facere was spoken of; namely, the practice of 'making' bees; as though they might be manufactured at will by human beings. Ovid further writers of the use of a rotten ox to 'recover bees by art', and creating them in this manner meant that mankind could dream of standing in relation to bees as gods did to mankind. The superstition that the life of bees derived from the carcass of dead oxen predates those of the Roman poets however. A version of the belief possibly began in ancient Egypt, where the sacred Apis bull was worshipped for its fertility and its strength, as the bee was for the miraculous, healing properties of its honey, and where belief in the reincarnation of the soul was strong. In ancient Arabia, there was a similar belief-system involving a dead horse. Here, we must return to Samson and the bees, perhaps the best-known variant of the bugonia legend, and to our familiar gold and green tin. Samson's story is allegorical - which is not to say that the ancient attachment to the concept of the Ox-born (or in this case Lion-born) bee was merely fanciful or symbolic. There were many complex tenets to its process,  chiefly centred around the method by which the ox must be killed and processed so that the conditions are rendered perfect for the genesis of the swarm to issue forth. Particular emphasis was given to the surrounding conditions of the carcass, with strict geometrical consideration given to the chamber in which the process was carried out. Fragrant thyme played a crucial role, as did the timing of the decaying process - strictly thirty days (after which the chamber was opened for a further eleven, at which point, the miraculous cluster of bees were alleged to swarm 'like summer clouds') and the creature reduced to horns, bone and hair. Belief in the process of bugonia persisted into the Renaissance and beyond, and from ancient poetry to prosaic British methods of animal husbandry.  In the 1600's, a Mr. Carew of Anthony, claimed to have successfully manufactured bees from the carcasses of yearling calves, and maintained his swarms not in hives but rather in the decapitated heads of pigs, convinced  that the burying of dead cattle at the end of April would produce honey-making bees by Summer. Shakespeare refers to the bee 'leaving her comb in the dead carrion' and Ben Jonson, writing in 'The Alchemist' of 1610 stated; 'Beside, who doth not see, in daily practice, Art can beget bees, hornets, beetles, wasps, out of the carcases and dung of creatures yea, scorpions of an herb, being rightly placed?'

The unique design of the Lyle's Golden Syrup tin is recognised the world over, and by the Guinness Book of World Records as 'Britain's oldest branding'. In our fast-paced and visually changing world, its appeal remains constant thanks to its sense of the eternal.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Poster Boys for the Beat Generation

With the possible exception of ‘Shakespeare and Company’ founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach and forever associated with the likes of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, City Lights Bookstore, opened in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin retains its heritage as the cradle of the Beat Generation Movement, and one of the few truly great independent bookshops in the United States. Six decades have passed since the birth of the Beat explosion became the byword for the burgeoning counterculture in American literature, and Ferlinghetti’s famous store, located in San Francisco at 261 Columbus Avenue, remains a destination for book-lovers the world over. Expanded several times during its 63-year history, City Lights continues to keep the flame of the Beat Generation alive, with extensive titles by the leading figures of the movement.  Famed for its reprints of important texts from such luminaries as Ginsberg and Burroughs, there are also sections on politics, philosophy, music, spirituality and ‘alternative’ lifestyle. With its famous masthead ‘A Literary Meeting-place since 1953’, City Lights remains the premier outlet for writers and readers seeking an alternative American voice. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with the now-famous ‘Pocket Poets’ series, and throughout the decades, has published a wide range of both poetry and prose titles, with over 200 still in print. Recognised and respected for its commitment to innovation and progressive ideologies in poetry and fiction, it remains a resistant force in the face of conservatism and literary censorship, and holds to the tenets of its founders as an invitation to participate in what they termed ‘the great conversation’ between authors of all ages. Though renowned throughout the literary world, the store has retained its sense of intimacy, with a liberal dose of anarchic charm.

Perhaps the most enduring image of the store remains its poster of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, based on a photograph taken by Caroline Cassady in 1952. Available for sale since it appeared in the 1950’s, the image was also used for the Penguin reprint of Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. First published in 1957, it remains perhaps Kerouac’s most defining literary achievement – and certainly the work for which he is most recognised. A classic roman a’ clef, Kerouac employed the key figures of the Beat movement as characters, including himself in the guise of narrator Sal Paradise. On publication, the New York Times hailed it as ‘the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’ and whose principal avatar he is’. Continuously in print, ‘On the Road’ was chosen by Time magazine as one of the greatest works in the English language, whilst Modern Library ranked it 55th on a shortlist of the best novels of the 20th century.

Caroline Cassady’s iconic image for the City Lights Bookstore poster was taken in the early fifties during one of the trio’s many road trips. She met Neal Cassady in 1947 whilst studying theatre arts at the University of Denver. Cassady, a working class man with literary aspirations, was close friends with budding writers Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the complexities of their conjoined relationship was detailed in her memoir ‘On and Off the Road: Twenty years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg’, published in 1990. She tolerated Cassady’s ramblings with Kerouac (and also their on-off sexual relationship)  and competed with a series of women throughout their tempestuous marriage. After ‘On the Road’ was published – in which he was forever mythologised as Dean Moriarty, Neal served three years in San Quentin for selling marijuana to an undercover policeman. On his release in 1963, the Cassadys divorced.

Caroline Cassady’s enduring photograph of Jack and Neal shows two men at the apex of their beauty, and as avatars of their era, and there is a timelessness to the image which transcends the age of its capture. Lovingly referred to as ‘The Boys’ by Ferlinghetti, the photograph retained its appeal long after the bloom of the Beat Generation faded, and it remains the essence of both innocence and experience for those that blazed their own trail in the decades that followed.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Sun and Salt, Figure and Ground: The Prints of Keith Vaughan

Keith Vaughan (1912-1977) belonged to a generation of serious painter-printmakers anxious to discover their identity in an artistic universe not only shattered by the events of the Second World War, but also one which had become largely dominated by European and American forms of abstraction, where the language of figurative painting was seen to possess little validation after the reality of recent global events. Chosen to undertake the vast mural for the Dome of Discovery at the 1951 Festival of Britain, he was also represented in the landmark exhibition ’60 paintings for ‘51’, Vaughan was regarded in high esteem by both contemporaries and discerning collectors at this early stage of his career, and possessed of an uncompromising sexual identity as a gay man (which he shared with Francis Bacon and John Minton), Vaughan’s figurative work is imbued with a potent male presence which remains as powerful and uncompromising to the contemporary onlooker as it did to the awakening audience of the forties and fifties. Reaching his professional peak with a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1962, Vaughan’s work mirrored the sudden shift of artistic emphasis that had been dominated by major European and American centres of art, and ushered in the Pop Art generation with which the art world of Britain in the sixties is most strongly associated. Despite a career eclipsed by contemporaries such as Bacon and Freud, Vaughan maintained a powerful creative output which was to last until his death in 1977.

A timely reassessment of Vaughan’s life and work has recently been published to accompany an exhibition based on major archive holdings of Vaughan's work at the Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum, and chiefly brings together his overriding preoccupations; the figure and the landscape. Three scholarly essays – on drawing and book illustration by Colin Cruise and on Vaughan’s photography by Simon Pierse, the text also includes a masterly and important re-appraisal of Vaughan as a printmaker by Robert Mayrick and Harry Hauser. Now much sought-after by collectors of the post-war artistic era, Vaughan as print-maker has perhaps failed to attract the scholarly attention this branch of his work justly deserves. Mayrick and Hauser examine Vaughan’s printed imagery of the 1950s, beginning with the iconic ‘Festival Dancers’ of 1951. They  discuss Vaughan’s lithographic landscapes chiefly populated by lithe male figures in the act of labour and repose. Recalling in his journal of 1940 ‘naked bodies browning in the sun and salt’, his printed images of the period reflect a sensual world imbued not only with hard work but also with forbidden sensuality; Vaughan's private preoccupations made uncompromisingly public. The authors also touch upon Vaughan’s early linocuts, made during his public school days, which were, by his own insistence, of 'little artistic concern' to the artist himself. Indeed, it was only in 1963, when invited by the Refern Gallery to edition some prints that had lain undiscovered for over a decade that a re-interest in the print medium was awakened in him. Whilst these early linocuts would suggest the influence of Edward Gordon Craig, whose images distilled the human figure to its very essence, Vaughan’s exposure to developments in colour auto-lithography in the late 1930’s and throughout the forties, advocated by contemporaries such as John Piper (and by commissions from such as Frank Pick at London Transport and Jack Beddington at Shell-Mex, who actively commissioned artists of Vaughan’s generation to explore the print medium, commissioning unsigned, open-edition prints for distribution among public institutions) proved to be the creative fulcrum for what was to follow. 

Continuing to largely focus on male figures in landscapes, all of Vaughan’s extant lithographs were made over a relatively short period. The lithographic medium appealed greatly to a generation of British artists such as Vaughan and his contemporaries as the technique was relatively new and –most crucially- unburdened by the long tradition of other print disciplines such as the wood-block and the etching plate. Finely crafted etchings and woodcuts that had been so popular during the inter-war years now seemed staid and conventional by comparison to a generation in pursuit of the new. Lithography also possessed the appeal of immediacy, somehow in direct, gestural alliance to the very act of painting itself. Resolving to shake off his former Neo-Romantic associations, Vaughan now forged a new direction in both painting and printmaking, and the latter proved to be the most effective medium for him to make the transition from his drawings and previous works on paper, preparing him for a decade of ravishing lithographic imagery.