You won't find any slickly produced art objects or cool cerebral minimalism on display in 85-year-old artist Bruce Lacey's new exhibition at Camden Arts Centre. You will, however, be able to browse the artist's childhood objects, from the toy fort his father made to his handmade dressing-up costumes and the Native American Indian doll he took to bed every night. You can watch documentary footage of kids in the 1970s devouring, with gusto, a life-size human jelly (complete with banana ribs) that Lacey made for a community arts event. You can explore a gallery of paintings and ritualistic performance objects, employed by Lacey to celebrate the mythical and magical nature of the elements. And you can meet robot actress Rosa Bosom, full name: 'Radio Operated Simulated Actress Battery or Standby Operated Mains', who was the best man at Lacey's second wedding and a star in her own right, having won the Alternative Miss World contest in 1985. It's an intriguing insight into the ongoing 60-year career of an exponent of a particularly British brand of eccentric surrealism.
Now silver-haired but still sprightly, and with a penchant for rainbow-striped knitwear, Lacey may be little known to current art audiences but was a central figure in the 1960s counterculture arts movement that, through their playfully surreal, satirical and slapstick antics, sent up the stuffy British establishment. With many current artists embracing a similar multidisciplinary and socially engaged practice – the art activist collective 'Liberate Tate', whose actions aim to end oil giant BP's sponsorship of the arts, being the most high-profile and overtly political example – it's all the more timely that Lacey is enjoying something of a renaissance. To coincide with the exhibition, the BFI has also released a DVD archive, 'The Lacey Rituals', featuring six hours of films made by and about Lacey.
The Catford born artist first took up drawing and painting during a hospital convalescence after contracting tuberculosis in 1947, but it was as a nascent performance artist that his diverse and free-spirited career took off. A love of vaudeville, acquired from childhood music hall visits with his father, fed into Lacey designing and organising his own sketches and revues during his art student days at Hornsey School of Art and the Royal College of Art. Shortly after graduating in 1954, Lacey teamed up with musical duo The Alberts, and the three of them went on to receive rave reviews for their theatrical performances which were billed as 'An Evening of British Rubbish'. Lacey also made props for and acted in short films and TV programmes, working with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine, among others, and appeared in the Beatles' film 'Help!'
An avid junk-shop scavenger, Lacey used his finds to create sculptural assemblages and robotic figures such as Rosa Bosom, several of which are on display at Camden. And it was Lacey's hoarding activities that inspired Ken Russell to make the documentary 'Preservation Man' about him in 1962.
In the 1970s and early '80s, in collaboration with then-partner Jill Bruce, and with family in tow, Lacey organised community arts events for kids and – following a move to Norfolk in 1979 – toured country fairs and festivals, performing shamanistic and earth goddess rituals. Rather than dropping out as a dippy hippy, Lacey's engagement with the landscape came from his positive desire to connect with a more rural tradition in British culture, an interest that had similarly inspired artists such as Peter Blake, who co-founded the Brotherhood of Ruralists in 1975.
Among Lacey's fans is Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, who has co-curated 'The Bruce Lacey Experience' and whose recent documentary about Lacey's life and art, made with Nick Abrahams, is included in the exhibition and on the DVD. With Lacey still such a lively presence, it's not surprising that it's through the documentary, rather than the largely archival exhibition, that Lacey's undimmed curiosity and ongoing call to arms to 'never lose the child within you' comes across strongest – or, as Lacey would put it, to keep 'playing silly buggers'.
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