PAUL WAGER uses the conventions of propaganda and memorial art to subvert their usual declarative and commemorative content. “Requiem for the Emblem of Power”, an exhibition that commemorates the centenary of the ending of the First World War, exists in the change of national consciousness bookended by Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” and Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem, For Doomed Youth”.
In his paintings, Wager takes the aesthetic of the propaganda poster — bold block colours, strident slogans, and graphic imagery — andm through a layering process, beginning with graphite and moving through layers of ink and water-based paint, before returning to ink, uses text and symbols, squares, diagonals and circles, arrows, stars, and crosses to explode visually the competing insistent ideologies of religion and politics, war and peace, machismo and chivalry, victory and tragedy.
Subvertere transposes yellow and black chevrons running diagonally across a green field of white-ringed black circles interrupted by red, white, and black crosses, red stars, black and white squares that merge and blur visually, inducing the hallucinatory feel of Op Art.
Across and around this riotous abstract field of conflict are the title text, a factual statement of colour (RED) and the phrases: “DURING TIMES OF UNIVERSAL DECEIT TELLING THE TRUTH BECOMES A REVOLUTIONARY ACT” and “ALLE REDEN VOM WETTER DAS WIR NICHT” (echoing a left-wing poster of the 1960s, which adapted the Bundesbahn winter advertising slogan “Everyone is talking about the weather. We aren’t” to imply that Socialism was a powerful force overcoming what others see as obstacles).
By contrast with the explosive movement of his paintings, Wager’s sculptures work with the stasis of memorial art. Memoriam Omnibus is a bronze and corten steel sculpture incorporating a memorial plinth on which a selection of wartime found objects (bullets, bayonets, pierced helmets) are placed together with texts, including “LOYALTY WAS THEIR HONOUR CHRISTIAN BLOOD THEIR BOND”. The sculpture is Wager’s memorial to Owen’s “doomed youth”, its plinth a reminder of the forge on which their doom was first hammered out through the forging of weaponry.
Wager has noted that his principal theme is the futility of war, and states that he views this sculpture as his contribution towards remembrance of “those brave uniformed men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their countries”. Omnibus dates from 2014, the centenary of the beginning of “the war to end all wars”, and was shown in Gloucester Cathedral that year as part of “Crucible 2”, with other works also commemorating the tragedy of their loss.
Paul WagnerMemoriam Omnibus by Paul Wagner
By way of both movement and stasis, then, Wager powerfully conveys his conviction that throughout the period of the First World War “political and core religious faith values were disregarded, and amidst the carnage it would appear nothing from a moral stand during the war was achieved.” Eleesa Dadiani, owner of Dadiani Fine Art Gallery adds: “The First World War was the horrific consequence of rival states blindly vying for power and supremacy.”
A bullet-holed German helmet from the Second World War, worn by a young soldier shot through the head while in retreat, and viewed by the artist on a visit to the Durham Light Infantry Museum, together with his three young sons, 25 years ago, provided the inspiration for both the theme of his artworks and his views of political conflict in society. He says that he looked at his sons and thought that the father of that German soldier would probably have had the same relationship with him as he had with his three little boys. That thought made him sympathise with “the individual terror these men must have gone through”.
Wager makes significant use of biblical texts and references in his work, particularly highlighting verses from Revelation, but also including the whole of Ephesians 6.12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the power of this dark world.” “Religion and politics”, he says, “are instrumental in getting ordinary people to move in strange directions which they normally wouldn’t do.” Yet the subversiveness of his work is an expression of “the contradiction and hypocrisy of those who seek to subvert religion to whatever cause”.
At an earlier stage in his career, he was on the staff at Loughborough University (where several of his most significant sculptures can be seen) and exhibited widely with the Loughborough Group. His Loughborough colleague Dave Morris has said: “Fundamental to Wager’s work is an underlying mistrust of governments and financiers whose decision-making has more than contributed to the environmental and social ravaging that has despoiled the face of his birthplace and current home.”
Wager’s art speaks prophetically about the dangers of serving centralised powers and systems, and therefore could well find common cause with those such as Dick Sheppard, whose response to the devastating losses of the First World War was to form the Peace Pledge Union, on the basis that “pacifism is a fundamental article of the Christian creed.” When asked whether political manipulation was as rife now as it had been in 1918, Wager replied: “You really question, ‘Have we learnt a lot?’ and I think the answer is, ‘No. We haven’t.’”
“Requiem for the Emblem of Power” by Paul Wager is at Dadiani Fine Art Gallery, 30 Cork Street, London, until 20 March. Phone 020 7287 3717. dadianifineart.com