The art of humour

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2000, 12:00am

CAN comic-book images be art? It's a long-running debate and one about which fans tend to get pretty uptight. But the pictures of Erro take the question to another dimension, not least because his cartoon characters come on king-size canvases.

He'll say there's 'a little political kick in his work', that they're not a statement, merely a record, and often humorous, but this is a real understatement. He paints neo-Nazism, Pol Pot's prisons, memories of Poland and Brezhnev. There are the years of US president Ronald Reagan's reign as farce, the Pope on rollerskates, superheroes saving Sarajevo by counselling people to protect themselves but not to fight back.

Pop art that gets stuck into life's absurdities like this has always seemed a very American idea, born there in the 1960s and belonging to Warhol, Lichtenstein and their ilk. Erro, by contrast, is an Icelander (born Gudmundur Gudmunsson) who has lived for a long time in Paris. He studied graphic art, fresco and Byzantine mosaics, providing a background that shows through in his flat, hard-edged black outlined images currently on show at the Arts Centre's Pao Galleries.

Among the 36 part-pop, part-Bosch paintings are crumbling, pseudo-European museums seen through puzzled Russian eyes; neo-Nazis and the astonishing availability of books about Hitler which become best-sellers in Germany; Castro smoking a huge cigar in a canvas covered with pigs; US president Richard Nixon peeping from behind the mask of vice-president Agnew with a pile of skulls in the background.

'Technically the paintings are quite good,' Erro says, 'but I'm not proud of them. I feel like an artisan.' He calls them memories, even 'biographical paintings' in which multiple images link to a character's life, and political and social environment. There's no hierarchy, no reading order. He plays with prints, photographs, cartoons, all arranged to make limited allusions to time and space. He works from a vast archive of cuttings and images collected over the years.

Erro is 68 now, a long way from those days in New York, where he used to live for four months of every year, partying hard with the artists of the new pop art movement. His passions haven't diminished, however, though he says he's mellowed. 'I'll maybe listen to the radio and then I think, 'My God, I have another new subject!' Sometimes it's created by anger, sometimes it's love for people.' Homages to his heroes crop up often, and a refrain is his coupling of idyll with horror, familiar with exotic.

Now, too, he's more dismissive of the Western art scene. 'China is what is comparable to the excitement of the 60s in Western art movements. In the West, we are too informed. It stops us from being so open in our work. It's wonderful to have almost no background.'

Erro has shown here before but this time his work is juxtaposed oddly with another series, The Chinese Paintings, which takes quite a different direction. There's still the humour - these are laughing, yet still respectful, references to mainland Cultural Revolution propaganda posters. He started collecting posters in the 70s on visits to Hong Kong and the series began soon after.

'They happened because of the sheer beauty of the Mao posters I found,' Erro says. 'I was familiar with Russian social art but fascinated by the beauty of these pictures of soldiers and peasants and heroes. They have such technique! So skilled. It's so amazing in contemporary Chinese art - they have all that training.'

With The Chinese Paintings comes a pocket-sized volume of quotes to stave off irritatingly repetitive journo questions. Erro has called it The Little Red Book.

Erro - Political Paintings. 10am-8pm daily. Pao Galleries, Arts Centre. Tel: 2582 0200. Ends October 22