It may have been faintly ridiculous to define a genre of music as ‘Dance’, yet in truth in the early 1990s it was certainly within that broadly defined arena where the best Pop records were being made. Indeed such was the explosion in output that an added benefit was the ease with which one could pick up numerous fantastic records at bargain prices. So it was with ‘Rollercoaster’ by Ariel, a record I plucked from the 10p racks in the small record store in Reading that kept me sane during my year of teacher training. Was it a shot in the dark? Certainly yes, and certainly no, for the single was on the De Construction label, already the home to Marina Van Looy’s sublimely classy ‘Sly One’ as well as superb singles by K Class, Bassheads and Transglobal Underground. So ‘Rollercoaster’ was certainly not a complete shot in the dark, yet as soon as the needle of my record player hit the vinyl it burrowed into my heart and took up residence for a long time. It was a record that never failed to lift my spirits; a record that glistened with lemony sunlight and that shimmied like a doe-eyed fawn. Was it a blueprint for the sounds that Tom Rowlands would go on to make with The Chemical Brothers? Possibly, but if so perhaps only in so much as being a preliminary sketch that blocks out themes and structures. And sometimes sketches are better than the final outcome.
Listened to again now ‘Rollercoaster’, like many of the singles from those times, sounds quaintly thin and brittle. This is no bad thing, for it reminds me of what I loved in the early rock’n’roll singles I would play on our red Marconiphone record player when I was very young. Something about the rudimentary sonic emptiness of those records seems to hold the key to their magic. What is absent is as vital as what is there. In true Pop style then ‘Rollercoaster’ is not a complex record. Tiptoeing in on pitter patter percussion, it is soon serenaded by a gentle guitar refrain that doesn’t sound a million miles away from the kind of Balearic beatitude that A Man Called Adam were carrying off so magnificently in the same year. Coming up on a swell, the main beat pumps blood to the extremities whilst the obligatory Italo House piano tinkles and sprinkles icicles from the balcony. On top of it all Sally Ann Marsh, formerly of Xpansions ‘Move Your Body’ fame, warbles reedily about blue horizons spinning round her head. Helium filled, the vocal floats flirtatiously into the atmosphere and dissipates like vapour trails. It’s all so inconsequential it’s almost not there, and this is certainly not a criticism for some things are meant to be passing, delicious pleasures. The sound of Pop singles, and ‘Rollercoaster’ in particular, is assuredly one of them.
The post punks might have proclaimed ‘fuck Art, let’s dance!’ but they missed a trick because really it should never be an either/or choice. For one can certainly dance to Architecture and one can assuredly dance to Art. Why would you not, after all? Inside or out, the choice is yours. For you can have your cake and eat it, if only you know the secrets. If only you know where to find the magic.
Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings certainly dance and they certainly contain magic. Maybe you do not see it? That is your prerogative and your loss. Me? Well my eyes go dizzy and my heart skips and sambas with my soul. Colours vibrate and fly away, lost in valid wondering indeed. Less by luck than judgement, though, for Kelly’s colours clamorously collide; their clashes carefully calibrated. Alliteration gone haywire. That’s Pop. But are Kelly’s paintings Pop? Of course not. Yet they Snap! and Crackle! nonetheless. Kelly’s paintings instead could more accurately be described as architectural and formal; as Minimalist and Modernist. Those M&Ms of course are traditionally perceived as vessels of whiteness but it need not be the case. Just ask Dan Flavin or Donald Judd.
Ellsworth Kelly’s colour and composition is not that of earth or sky but is rather the colour of chemicals, the composition of geometry. It is man-made: Colour and composition Against Nature. But is it, like Huysmans vision, symbolic? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Certainly his ‘Gray’ series was originally conceived as being an anti-war statement, but more than anything this sets up the question of where does symbolism end and metaphor begin? Or vice versa. And do we need symbols and metaphors to impart or infer meaning? How pared back can we go and still communicate? This, it seems to me, is the essential question that Kelly’s paintings ask us. It also asks about the value we place on questions themselves. In a world torn apart by hate, fear, oppression, inequality and intolerance, what is the value of intellectual, aesthetic pondering? Where does our thinking about an orange circle segment and a green rectangle get us? Is the green the green of the grass? No. Yes. Why? Why not? Is the orange the orange of the sun? Yes. No. Why? Why not?
Perhaps you do not see such questions as being important. That is your prerogative and your loss. Me? I believe that a base line of equality and safety in our societies must explicitly allow for the space in which free intellectual thought can take place. Everyone ought to have the luxury of asking such questions because really it is no luxury at all.
And of course we must have the freedom to dance whilst doing so...