Peter Kennard - Haywain with Cruise Missiles 1980It figures that, if you’ve a collection as deep and wide as the Tate’s you’re gonna shuffle the deck and contrive ever more inventive ways of bringing out your big guns. Fair enough. So it is with Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain, Tate Liverpool’s spring show.

The exhibition coerces and co-opts its way into a double billing with Raymond Williams’s seminal lexical book: Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society – one of the first (and brightest) studies of language, as seen through a cultural, rather than purely etymological prism.

The book, and now the show of the book, takes words (and works) for a walk…and sees whether art and language underwent a similar, subtle shifting of focus at the same time – roughly contained within the period 1976-1991.

But there’s a whiff of the arranged marriage here. And the works, if anything, seem to lose their brilliance, a little, when they’re positioned next to super-sized cursive font. It’s a subtitle too far – the words enervating, rather than illuminating.

Did Hockney, Anish Kapoor, Helen Chadwick and co really paint or sculpt their works into existence thanks to the solitary, subconscious prodding of a buzzword? Of course not (and we know that’s not what the show is groping for), but still…there’s a sense of homework being set here. A sense of a sixth form project: ‘paint what folk looks like’ hovering over the pieces.

(PS: In Keywords, folk looks like tricolour-painted curbstones in Belfast…But the stories behind Paul Graham’s striking 1984 image of the Crumlin Road, in reality, could fill an entire dictionary.)

Elsewhere, because of the disconnect (in physical space) between the words and the works, you’re sort of lost in a soupy mess of anger, exploitation, violence and criticism: without ever being really sure what word relates to which work. And, ultimately, coming to the conclusion that each might relate to any.

Yes Bill Woodrow’s ‘Car Door, Ironing Board and Twin Tub with North American Indian Head Dress’, Stephen Willats ‘Living with Practical Realities’ and Helen Chadwick’s ‘Carcass’ still pack a powerful punch (and it’s great to see Hockney’s Parents again). But, for us, Keywords was a tale of two halves. And, before long, we just ignored the words completely, and feasted on what amounted to a decent rehanging of some of Tate’s storehouse of wonders.

All of which sort of left us speechless.

Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain
Tate Liverpool, £8/£6
Until 11 May

Main pic: My Parents, David Hockney © David Hockney Collection Tate, London
Second pic: Haywain with Cruise Missiles, Peter Kennard © Peter Kennard. Image courtesy Tate.

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