John Yeadon

Biff and the dummies dominate third Yeadon retrospective exhibition

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What Are You Looking At?

The third in a series of exhibitions to celebrate artist John Yeadon reaching 70 features paintings of a manically grinning ventriloquist’s dummy and drawings of a strange creature called Biff.
These weird and wonderful creatures inhabit our world but through them we see it in a different and slightly unnerved way, one which is entrancing and repelling at the same time.
Over the years John has created different bodies of work in varying mediums. An exhibition in the former Coventry Telegraph building last year featured mostly large paintings from the 1980s, some of which had led to a scandalised and homophobic editorial in the paper at the time. There is also a decade of digital work which has not been featured in these exhibitions.
This show, at the Lanchester Research Gallery at Coventry University until February 22, is called Fearful Symmetry. It includes a large number of etchings and drawings of Blind Bifford Jelly, a grotesque character which is an amalgam of body parts; usually lacking one arm, and with his head in place of his torso.
Blind Biff Fucks a Pig
Blind Biff Fucks a Pig

The scene is set for the irreverence with which Biff sees the world in How Blind Biff Greets his Audience, showing our hero with his pants down, bottom and balls thrust towards us. In others he explains to animals “How the Big Ones Eat the Little Ones”. He breaks his journey to masturbate by the pathway, watched by a dog, and in the Houses of Parliament peopled by ape-like creatures he swings the mace.
In one of the drawings he visits Blackpool and gets his toe bitten by a crab, sees the Lady Godiva statue in Coventry, and Blind Biff Searches for God – with a torch, on the carpet.

How BB Jely Swung the Mace in Parliament
How BB Jelly Swung the Mace in Parliament

Biff also features in coloured works with a collage of images in each picture, including Biff exploring sneezing and enjoying a Christmas of drink and food.
In his introduction in the exhibition’s catalogue John said the character of Biff had been influenced by his mother’s ventriloquist dummy Tommy.

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He’s Back

The fascinating family history of performing with ventriloquist dummies features in the next part of the exhibition, including family photos and memorabilia, and the Tommy and Annie dummies themselves. There are unnerving portraits of the pair in Tommy (the Suit Case Act) and Annie (Ghost of my Grandmother), specially the latter looking like a stocky and slightly menacing little girl.
Other portraits of them and other dummies show them in different poses and taking on characters and thoughts, raising the question of who is manipulating who, and really speaking out.
In an excellent essay in the catalogue, George Shaw recounts how he first met John Yeadon in the 1980s after discovering an exhibition of his work at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, and he discusses the significance of the Biff and ventriloquist dummy works. Don’t miss it, and as Yeadon now turns 71, make sure you also don’t miss this excellent addition to the retrospective year.

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Dramatic exhibition asks how much society has really moved on since the 80s

Before the Rain

Oh the irony. An exhibition of paintings criticised 34 years ago in a newspaper editorial as “smut not art” is now on show in the building where that editorial was written and printed.

What’s The Meaning of This? is the title of the ‘selective retrospective’ by John Yeadon, a show to mark reaching 70 and also look back at what may or may not have changed over the years. Is society more tolerant and open minded, is Coventry more enlightened and less provincial, he asks?

Leader article

The front page story of 1984 in which a Tory councillor raged against an exhibition of Yeadon’s paintings as “overtly pornographic” is put on show on the wall, alongside the editorial. The exhibition was called Dirty Tricks and was on at what Yeadon calls the high point of Aids paranoia and ‘gay blame’; he describes the works as allegorical Grotesque Realist paintings.

John says the exhibition of his works at The Herbert increased attendance 40 per cent afterwards. Some of the paintings from that exhibition are on show here in what was the paper’s last news room on its Corporation Street site, before it moved to smaller premises reflecting the decline of print journalism.

It’s a trip down memory lane for me after nearly 19 years spent working at the Cov Tel, though the newsroom moved within the Corporation Street building during those years so the critical editorial wouldn’t have been written in the same room where the paintings are now displayed.

However the room is perfectly proportioned for them, the largest ones fitting brilliantly almost floor to what was the ceiling; the low, oppressive false ceiling fellow journalists will remember has been removed to show the industrial spaces above and the blinds – always closed to stop glare on the computers – are now open. I’ve seen a lot of John’s works over the past 20 years but this earlier period of his was new to me and the dramatic works are stunning and mesmerising.

The Deluge

The Beach Party (before the rain) and The Deluge (after the rain) from 1981 and 82 (top and above) start the show, the first depicting men on a beach, frolicking and partying but in a strange contorted way, playing on a seesaw and dancing around, lots of them semi-naked. The Deluge is darker, literally and metaphorically, with one man being carried by others, their heads covered in bags; the fun is over.

Another painting from 1981, the year of the Charles and Diana royal wedding, the march for jobs and hunger strikes, is called The British Scene/summer 1981, and ironic British flags pop up all over the strange groups of people.

State Apartments       Boy Venus and Midnight of Freedom

Democratic Circus from 1982 features two panels, State Apartments and Assembly Rooms (above) , the official titles at odds with the depictions of men having sex, maybe showing what’s really going on behind the official scenes.

Suicide Street is another dark work, a man created from black intense swirls to show his outline and torso, with Zombie on Suicide Street written on it.

Boy Venus (Sunday Draws In) of 1987 shows a good looking naked young man starting straight at the artist, as another man enters the room through the curtains. Midnight of Freedom shows a naked black man crouched on a television, looking wary.

There’s also a whole corner of large paintings of naked men in various scenes.

Range of pics

John’s series of paintings of his family and his ventriloquist dummies aren’t included in this selective exhibition, nor his digital pieces concentrating on food and obesity (which also gathered negative press attention), but there are a number from his Englandia series, showing pleasant small paintings; a duck house to again reflect a political scandal of a few years ago, plus pastoral fields of English countryside, and other fields with human invasions of pylons and powerlines, railway tracks and windfarms.

Even more recent paintings – a Control Room at Sellafield, showing one man in charge of a bank of screens and buttons, and It’s Alive!, his 2017 version of a much older paintings of the WITCH computer at Bletchley – also feature.

I wouldn’t even think of trying to answer John’s questions about society and Coventry in particular and how it’s changed over the years. But after what will probably be more than half my working lifetime spent at the Coventry Evening Telegraph building it was interesting to visit for the last time before it’s conversion to a hotel and see in particular some works from an exhibition I wasn’t in Coventry for the first time around, and hope that such an editorial would never be written today.

Fascinating paintings to see too if you’re only familiar with John’s works from the last couple of decades – the show is on until June 14, Mondays to Saturdays 12-4pm.