The long and winding path of Gerald Laing, from bikini babes to the dogs of war

Steve Dinneen
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Trouble in the Banlieu by Gerald Laing (Source: Fine Art Society)

Gerald Laing is best known for his bold pop art works featuring beautiful bikini models, macho space-men and daredevil skydivers.

He was a pioneer of the movement, a Brit who moved to New York and became a cultural figurehead, revered alongside the likes of Andy Warhol (who he would later pay homage to in a series of sculptures) and, perhaps his most obvious early analogue, Roy Lichtenstein.

But unlike his contemporaries, Laing seemed to fall out of love with the imagery that made his name. His later works took on a darker, more serious tone: the war paintings he made prior to his death in 2011, his portraits of Amy Winehouse as she battled both inner demons and external forces, even his more obviously “pop” portrait of Victoria Beckham, which hints at an inner turmoil.

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“Laing turned himself deliberately into a wolf in sheep’s clothing, re-energising the pictorial forms of his youthful innocence with the knowledge and despair of a lifetime’s experience,” says art historian and curator Marco Livingstone.

Gerald Laing's take on Amy Winehouse, courtesy of the Fine Art Society

As early as the late 60s, Laing started to move away from the stencils and brush-painted dots that made up his early, newspaper-esque paintings. He became fascinated with minimalist sculpture before moving on to figurative bronzes, making a series based on his Russian wife Galina, as well as casting cultural figures including Luciano Pavarotti.

When he later returned to more traditional pop art paintings, he subverted the form with highly critical pieces, some featuring Tony Blair, others quasi-religious figures perched atop Brillo boxes while victims of war weep beneath. These pieces reflect the life of a man who travelled a long way from his famous early painting of Brigitte Bardot peering playfully through a pink hoop.

Gerald Laing 1936-2011 is on at the Fine Art Society until 13 October, go to thefineartsociety.com for more information

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