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Untitled 1997 is a rectangular portrait-orientated colour screenprint by the British artist Mat Collishaw that features a photograph of the artist’s son at its centre. The young boy looks upwards at the viewer with a sad expression on his face while holding an empty food packet in his right hand and an orange teddy bear tucked under his left arm. He wears short trousers, an oversized waistcoat, a blanket and a red scarf tied around his neck – an appearance that is reminiscent of that of a begging child from the nineteenth century. He is superimposed against a background image of outer space in which small white stars are visible in the blackness, and a large swirling orangey-red constellation appears in the centre of the composition immediately surrounding the boy. Scattered in a curving pattern around the figure and seemingly drifting off into space are an array of empty crisp packets and drink cans. The work is printed on a board of shiny polyester known as Melinex and is signed by the artist on its reverse.
This screenprint was made by Collishaw in London in 1997. With the boy’s anachronistic clothing and pleading expression, it can be compared with other contemporaneous works by Collishaw that explore the representation of children in relation to notions of innocence and corruption across various historical eras. In 1997 he also made Awakening of Conscience, a series comprising three photographs of teenage girls wearing school uniforms lying in woods surrounded by drug and alcohol paraphernalia, while in 1998 Collishaw completed Sugar and Spice, a series of nine photographs in which young girls appear as tiny fairies superimposed onto dirty, litter-filled landscapes (see, for example, Sugar and Spice, All Things Nice, This Is What Little Girls Are Made Of #7 1998, Tate P78248).
In a 2012 interview with the critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston, Collishaw discussed how his focus on children in ambiguous or distressed contexts connects with his wider practice:
I try to disguise my liberal nature, but generally my work is trying to flag up the dispossessed and disenfranchised; drunks, prostitutes or homeless kids. I want to give a voice to them but not in a whingeing, heart-on-sleeve way. I would rather run the risk of being considered exploitative or nasty than being just a bleeding-heart-liberal, banging on about a cause that nobody but the converted would be receptive to. You have to come out aggressively to actually make someone feel the pathos of a certain situation.
(Quoted in Rachel Campbell-Johnson, ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’, in Watts and Maxwell (eds.) 2012, p.19.)
Untitled may also be seen as having a comic quality, particularly in the way it brings together an image of the cosmos, which suggests grand connotations, with the more mundane detritus of contemporary life. In a similar respect, the print seems to confirm the argument made by the critic Sue Hubbard in 2012 that a ‘tension between the beautiful and the abject is central to all of Collishaw’s work; between the promise of a possible paradise and the profane’ (Sue Hubbard, ‘A Terrible Beauty’, in Watts and Maxwell (eds.) 2012, p.11).
Born in Nottingham in 1966, Collishaw studied at Trent Polytechnic (1985–6) and Goldsmiths College in London (1986–9). Bullet Hole 1988, an enlarged photograph mounted across fifteen light boxes showing a close-up view of a head wound, was included in the exhibition Freeze staged in south London in 1988, a show curated by the artist Damien Hirst that is widely seen as having initiated the Young British Artist phenomenon. Although photography has remained central to Collishaw’s practice, he has also made films, paintings, sculptures and installations, often referencing art history, natural imagery and religious iconography. For example, Hollow Oak 1995 (Tate T07435) consists of video footage of a tree projected onto a framed piece of etched glass, while The Garden of Unearthly Delights 2009 is an illuminated mechanised zoetrope that incorporates sculptures of babies, birds and butterflies.
This work is part of Screen, a portfolio of eleven prints by London-based artists that was published in 1997 by Charles Booth-Clibborn under his imprint The Paragon Press. The works were all made between February and July 1997, and are presented together with a title page and colophon by the graphic designer Phil Baines in a black buckram-covered wooden case. The title of the portfolio refers to the technique of screenprinting and also alludes to the fact that many of the featured artists work with screen-based media. Each print exists in an edition of seventy-five, with the first forty-five produced in portfolio sets, of which the portfolio owned by Tate is number thirty-three.
In Print: Contemporary British Art from the Paragon Press, exhibition catalogue, Cvijeta Zuzoric Art Pavilion, Belgrade, London 2001, p.21.
Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, London 2006, pp.150–2.
Jessica Watts and Eloise Maxwell (eds.), Mat Collishaw, London 2012.
Supported by Christie’s.