In 1955 John McHale was awarded a one-year fellowship to study colour theory and industrial design under the artist Josef Albers (1888-1976) at Yale University in the United States. During that year McHale became extremely interested in American popular culture, especially music, film, and pictorial magazines. When he returned to England in the summer of 1956, shortly before the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, he brought with him a trunk full of American ephemera including records, magazines and exhibition catalogues. Although the Independent Group's interest in American popular culture pre-dated McHale's trip, the material he brought back provided an important of source of material for some of the group. For example, images from McHale's collection were used in the Group Two section of This is Tomorrow, which he assembled with the artist Richard Hamilton (b.1922) and the architect John Voelcker.
The magazines also provided raw material for a series of figurative collages that McHale made between 1956 and 1958, in which collage was used not as a satirical strategy, as it had been by such Dadaists as Max Ernst (1891-1976), but as a metaphor for modern, urban life. In their appearance these collages were closely related to Eduardo Paolozzi's (b.1924) collages of heads made in the late 1940s and Nigel Henderson's (1917-1984) of the mid 1950s, for example, Head of a Man, 1956 (Tate T01939). The practice of composing an image from fragments of other images fitted well with McHale's analysis of the experience of urban existence and the strategies of modern media as a 'palimpcestuous layering of signs' (Lawrence Alloway paraphrasing John McHale in The Expendable Ikon, p.32). According to McHale the individual living in the city or consuming such media as television or modern magazines was constantly bombarded by a myriad of different stimuli; rather than inducing a state of trauma this was the natural and desirable condition of man in the modern world. In 1959, writing in Lady Clare: A Review, the critic Robert Freeman described the collages as images of 'the media-fed man' (quoted in Robbins, p.87).
In Furhead fragments of magazine and postcard images are arranged to construct a central head motif, onto which McHale has drawn a pair of eyes, a mouth and a nose. The images function both as formal elements in the composition of the head and as referents to the things that they depict; for example, the perimeter of the head is made up of images of Mediterranean coastal towns. The fluidity of meaning created by this type of collage is perhaps most compellingly illustrated by the segment of Italian text in the upper left, which seems to be about a mountain rescue of some sort. By turning it upside down the viewer's ability to read it as a piece of text is obstructed. The fact that it is only a fragment without a clear meaning, and that for British viewers it is in a foreign language only heightens the difficulty of assigning a stable linguistic meaning to it. In this way the grip of language, which would normally assign to each mark a specific significance, is loosened and the marks are able to operate as patterns without fixed meaning.
Jacquelynn Baas's analysis of the types of images McHale used to construct the collages concludes that they fall into one of two categories: organic or technological. She argues that some of the collages only use one of these categories, and that others use both. Furhead, in as much as it supports this theory at all, appears to be among the latter. Arguably the representation of fur in the lower left and right in the form of furcoats suggests an integration of nature and technology to the extent that it is shown after it has been processed and reconstituted for human use. Following this logic, coastal towns may be considered as places where nature, as represented by the sea, and the technological, as represented by the town, meet. Equally, however, the inclusion of furcoats and Mediterranean resorts may have been intended to suggest the glamorous and exotic. But perhaps more important than the content of each of image is the fact that they are all taken from various forms of mass media and that they are deployed in a manner similar to the 'multi-ordinal character of pictorial structure' that McHale recognised as a mass media strategy: 'the ways in which enormous close-ups, serial, X-ray, micro- and macroscopical views are used, and the fragmentary, blurred and out of focus qualities which give ambivalence to an image' (John McHale, 'The Expendable Ikon', in Expendable Ikon, p.27).
Furhead was probably made in London, though the exact location is not known.
Jacquelynn Baas, 'John McHale', David Robbins (ed.), The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1990, pp.87-93
The Expendable Ikon: Works by John McHale, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Art Gallery,Buffalo 1984, reproduced p.33, cat.no.8