“Consequences” is a temporary exhibit at the Guernsey Museum's Greenhouse Gallery. It presents 16 paintings by Peter Le Vasseur intended to provoke change and raise awareness.
Mr. Le Vasseur is a native of the Channel Islands. At a young age, his family fled the islands to escape the Nazi occupation. In the 1960s, he achieved considerable success in the London art world including several one-man shows at the Portal Gallery in Mayfair. The Beatles and several film stars are among those who purchased his works. In 1975, Mr. Le Vasseur returned to the Channel Islands and took up residence in Guernsey.
The works are realistic, highly detailed, almost illustrational. The colors are bold but warm. This lulls the viewer welcoming him or her into the scene. It is only when you have gone beyond the first glance that you notice that there is something wrong with these idyliic scenes such as pollution on a beautiful beach or a fish deformed by atomic radiation cast up on a shore.
All of the works in the Consequences exhibit have a message. Most deal with environmental themes. However, you also have works dealing with other issues such as isolation in modern life. Le Vasseur presents a happy scene of people enjoying a leisurely day in a public park. As you look at the vatious figures you notice that there is no interaction, everyone has earphones or is absorbed with their smart phone.
There, of course, is a long tradition of using visual art to make social commentary. The works of William Hogarth in the 18th century spring to mind. In his most successful series “A Rake's Progress”, Hogarth painted a series of scenes that saturize the mores of the English upper class of that day.
The problem in social commentary art is balancing the message and the artistic qualities of the work. If the message is too strong, the work often loses its artisitic appeal and becomes propaganda, the best examples being the posters created for authorian dictatorships during the 20th century. If the artistic qualities dominate, the work may fail to convey the social message that the artist was seeking to communicate.
In the Consequences exhibit, Mr. Le Vasseur's works send strong messages. The scenes are colorful and attractive with the foliage and figures superbly presented. But there is always a man-made blemish to transform the happy scene into one with nightmarish implications. As a result, the viewer is left uncomfortable and forced to think about the issues presented.
The question then becomes whether the message is too obvious. One could say that most people know that pollution is a bad thing. As a result of this awareness, there has been considerable progress in this area during the course of my lifetime. But environmental scentists tell us much remains to be done. Therefore, presenting a clear message reminding the public about pollution is justifiable.
Inevitably, in social commentary art, the viewer's opinion of the work will be influenced by his or her opinion on the message the artist is trying to convey. But leaving politics aside, the wotrks in Consequences must be viewed as successful. First, it cannot be debated that the works are technically well done. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they do provoke the viewer to think, which was clearly the artist's intention.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.