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Tate Britain Presents John Latham in Focus
John Latham, Belief System, 1959 © The Artist.

LONDON, ENGLAND.-Tate Britain presents John Latham in Focus, on view through February 28, 2006. This exhibition surveys the art of John Latham from 1954 to the present day. In the course of a career that spans more than fifty years, Latham has come to occupy an important and distinctive position in contemporary art. Working in a variety of media he belongs to no particular artistic tendency. Nevertheless the contribution he has made to painting, assemblage, performance, book art, conceptual art and film has been significant and influential. The basis for all his activities and ways of working is his world view – an outlook that explodes conventional systems of thought and is essentially visionary.

Latham sees the ills and conflicts that beset mankind as the result of differences in ideology. He attributes these differences to the absence of a single theory capable of explaining the universe and man’s position within it. The theoretical framework he has evolved seeks to provide a unified explanation of existence.

Bridging artistic, philosophical and scientific ideas, Latham’s theory of ‘event structure’ challenges the views of scientists and cosmologists. According to this theory everything that exists can be explained, not as atomic particles and waves, but as recurring time-based ‘events’ of finite duration. A ‘least event’ – the shortest departure from a state of nothingness – is, for Latham, the fundamental unit of existence. The recurrence of such events establishes a ‘habit’ and forms the basis for structures in reality. Recurring events of longer duration result in more complex phenomena such as objects, mental images and, ultimately, the cosmos.

Latham’s art manifests these ideas. Dating from 1954, his use of spray exemplifies ‘a coming into being’ (represented by a build-up of minute dots of paint) from nothingness (represented by the blank canvas) as the result of an event (the duration of the burst of spray). Such ideas are evident in the earliest painting here, Man Caught up with a Yellow Object 1954 and in such later works as the One Second Drawing 1972.

Since 1958, books – burnt, painted and cut up – have been a primary motif. Books symbolise thought. The way they emerge from many of his canvases suggests a human presence coming into being. But books also represent different systems of belief. His most recent work involves books combined with glass – a substance prone to shatter. Latham’s message is clear: the need for a unified world view is more urgent than ever.

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