60 years since the first showing of the exhibition Black Eyes and Lemonade in 1951, Whitechapel Gallery has brushed the dust off Barbara Jones' jazzy poster and pays homage to its startling design and bright-yellow colour scheme. It greets visitors upon arrival, luring them towards a pair of inquisitive eyes accompanied by the title "British Popular Art". Here, each eyelash is also a line of text, listing the different kinds of popular art at the original 1951 exhibition, now being commemorated (dairy statues, sweets and cakes, fretwork, and corn dollies, to name a few).
Sitting side-by-side with other working drawings for the same project, the poster harks back to the central role that vision played in the work of Barbara Jones. The emphasis on the eye points towards a dynamic and active mode of looking, certainly one that the artist wholeheartedly promoted in her lifetime through her "art of arrangement". Whitechapel's recasting of Black Eyes and Lemonade may fall short in its attempt to recapture Jones' imaginarium of objects, as it contains only a few surviving originals from the 1951 show, but it is nonetheless a successful and informative portrait of her pioneering aspirations and influential position as a forerunner of pop art in Britain, provoking a daring contemplation of the world of art in relation to our more mundane world of commodities.
The museum eye had to be abandoned, Jones believed, because it encouraged passive reception. Starting with this idea, Whitechapel Gallery's retrospective invites us to critically reflect on conventional curatorial paradigms that still inspire museums today. We learn of the artist's resistance to lengthy captions for her catalogue for the 1951 Black Eyes and Lemonade, as she felt they would overrule viewers' direct exchange with and interpretation of the objects on display. So it is not without some disappointment that the viewer discovers the current Black Eyes and Lemonade lining up with a rather orthodox curatorial appreciation, as smaller objects are tidily ordered and safely restrained in display cases, all of which turns Jones' pieces into a tidy life's work (which it wasn't). This element of the exhibition, then, seems out of tune with Jones' radical ideas.
There are, however, elements of randomness in the choice of particular drawings, objects and writings that are more aligned with Jones' desire to introduce arbitrary categories and whimsical arrangements. She rejected historical, sociological and geographical typologies, and divided objects into categories such as Home, Birth-Marriage-Death, Man's Own Image and Commerce & Industry. Looking at the photographs of the installation views from 1951 is like peeping into a cabinet of curiosities in disarray, all playfully jumbled up with no apparent order. By following this strategy, Jones created horizontal relationships between objects of various kinds, placing small next to big, mass-produced next to hand-crafted, ephemeral next to enduring, and in effect defied conventional hierarchies of value.
Black Eyes and Lemonade (1951) brought a refreshing re-evaluation of British culture and traditional art at a time when many long-standing assumptions were being blown up – it was the postwar period, and rebuilding and redevelopment became integral to the recovery of the nation. Also, as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, the exhibition shared the call to celebrate Britain's roots, the nation's past, its "Land and People", while extolling a futuristic desire to advance technological prowess and scientific rationalism. For her part, Jones put popular art in the spotlight, and focused on consumers and collectors, separating herself from institutionalised museums and connoisseurship. Just as boldly, she had to handle opponents to machine-made goods, who wanted to sponsor only traditional crafts, and this struggle to define the limits of popular art was resolved in the balance between man-made and mass-produced products.
In one of the press clippings from The East London Advertiser, we are told how Jones, along with fellow artist Tom Ingram and poet Douglas Newton, scoured the city in a purpose-converted taxi in search of collectables from manufacturers, museums and other organisations. Many of the exhibits were already part of her private collection – objects that she had amassed over time during her travels (from bazaars, secondhand shops, from makers). Today's show comprises a minute selection (much of it from Jones's private collection) – for example, a fireplace shaped like an Airedale Terrier or the Nora funfair horse. Other small objects on display, like beer labels, matchbox designs, or toy-like mementos, evoke the challenging and cheerful approach of Black Eyes and Lemonade as well as the poem inspiring the title of the show:
"A Persian's heaven is easily made,
'Tis but – black eyes and lemonade"
– Thomas Moore, Intercepted Letters (1813).
Although the viewer leaves wishing for a more vibrant reappraisal of the 1951 show and feeling that the exhibition tames the fantastical magic so unique to Jones' appreciation of art objects, it is a powerfully didactic and highly-recommended retrospective that works very well as an archival showcase of Jones' legacy.