Michael Peel’s vivid, campaigning text/image works have made a significant contribution to UK visual culture. Through his work Peel sought to expose the forces of power and control, with all their mechanised horrors, injustices and resulting social disintegration. Never straying into dogma, his practice was rooted in a genuine concern for the ordinary and everyday lives of others.
Born in Singapore at the outbreak of the Second World War, Peel and his mother were forced to flee the invading Japanese army, becoming refugees in search of safety and sanctuary. His father, taken prisoner to work on the infamous Burma railway, never returned. The artist and teacher that emerged from this childhood trauma was one of humanity and warmth, whose practice projected a visceral and graphic representation of the social and political excesses endured.
Peel’s practice revolved around photography and printmaking; combining text excerpts and grainy imagery culled from television and print with dynamic, attention grabbing composition. His pivotal poster works series ‘Modern World’, shown simultaneously in galleries and flyposted on billboards, hoardings and lampposts, were part of a strategy to reach a popular audience. Photography was appropriate because it was easily understood, a ‘public, contemporary language’. Its multiple manufacture, through the more commercial processes of silkscreen, moved it away from any ‘objet d’art’ preciousness, placing it within an everyday.
His poster interventions had their antecedents and influences in the visual and conceptual languages of John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch along with the writings of Marshall McLuhan; the idealism of the post war period; the hedonism of 1960’s; the hardened realities of the political and social upheavals of the 1970’s to 90’s; and the dawn of the informational age. Later work explored ideas of chaos, uncertainty and insecurity.
Teaching was an important extension of Peel’s practice. His unique approach to a subject that had long been seen simply as a technical or craft based activity, helped redefine the role of print within artistic practice.
Peel was one of a generation of artists who thought of art as a mechanism for social change, and that artists were uniquely qualified to reveal the often hidden iniquities of contemporary society. This exhibition demonstrates that the work of Peel remains powerfully fresh and relevant, and will continue to be so while his childhood experiences are relived through new generations of the displaced and disenfranchised.