Adam Gillam, Kenneth Halliwell & Joe Orton

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3 out of 5 stars
Emlyn Williams, the Collected Plays.jpg
Courtesy Islington Local History Centre/The Random House Group Ltd/The Orton Estate The Islington Library Books, 1959-62. Defaced book jacket and spine of 'The Collected Plays of Emlyn Williams' (detail)

The felony most people remember Kenneth Halliwell for was a crime against art: in 1967 he murdered his partner (the scandalously brilliant playwright Joe Orton) with a hammer. But, five years earlier (before Orton’s promiscuity and success aggravated Halliwell’s depression) the pair were sent down for 6 months for defacing library books. And this tiny EC1 gallery is dead right to present their mutual crime as art.

The doctored dust-jackets on loan from Islington Local History Centre have been satirised through collage: an infinitely wittier commentary than your usual cocks-in-the-margin doodling. Amid the chaste pastel arrangement of a guide to flowers a simian face peers, mournfully, out of a rose. A kitsch cluster of Persian cats dominates an Agatha Christie crime-scene. Orton and Halliwell’s interference with public property may have been a way of critiquing but also inserting themselves into the institutions which were unreceptive to them, as gay men and, in Orton’s case, as a playwright who kicked aside the conventions of the closeted greats of the previous generation. The collected plays of Emlyn Williams (one of those closeted greats) gets the most explicit makeover: ‘UP THE BACK’, ‘UP THE FRONT’ and ‘FUCKED BY MONTY’ are three of the phrases, typed in tiny blackmail-style capitals and glued minutely on its front cover.

Artist Adam Gillam’s selections are remarkably subtle, wistful and full of artistry although I’m not sure what is gained by hanging the jackets alongside Gillam’s own work (also in part a response to the dry art of the 1950s) other than a very broad parallel. The meaning – and the point – of the Orton/Halliwell interventions lies in their context, and the beauty of the collages as art objects lies in the unexpected delicacy with which they reveal the sexually liberated and disrespectful exuberance that was to define the 1960s. There’s the germ of a great large-scale exhibition here too: let’s hope Islington Local History Centre atones for its library’s past errors and mounts one.

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