Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue

Walking around the Serpentine Gallery’s dramatically hung work of the late Leon Golub, visitors really do feel the compulsion to bite their tongues. The raw and graphic scenes depicted in Golub’s canvas paintings thunder throughout the space, aggressively rumbling at onlookers as they pass by.

Bite Your Tongue comes as a wild and intense retrospective for Golub; something which has yet to happen in the United States, presumably due to the highly political and violent subjects spotlighting American armed forces in a negative light. Nonetheless, this exhibition is worth a walk through Hyde Park for its bold and unrestrained display – but be wary, this is not a show for the light-hearted.

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Beginning with Golub’s earliest works, the exhibition sees a narrative of his life’s work, moving from the early 1950s right up until his death in 2004. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Golub found focus in his work through use of rough painterly practice. He often scraped paint away from his canvases, layering and scratching with unusual tools and materials such as meat cleavers and red oxide. This worked to replicate the heavy subjects and their violent nature, both ferocious in physicality and theory.

The galleries hanging Golub’s 1980s mercenary ‘white squads’ in Latin America and the 1960s napalm paintings representing the horrors of the Vietnam war, are particularly disturbing. The sheer size of each painting is theatrical, increasing the transgressive atmosphere occurring throughout the gallery. Scenes of torture and terrorism pound against each wall, leaving spectators no breathing space. Fiery flesh and ravaged bodies invade the gallery, assaulting voyeurs with oppressive messages and victim-type mind sets.

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Golub’s earliest work and later work represent Greek and Roman mythology, where he uses animals as legislatures for the fierce human race and how it has escalated war and extremism. Themes of tyranny and censorship surface, with phrases like “Bite your tongue” and “Beware of the dog” scrawled across the large wall hung canvases.

All in all Bite Your Tongue is a menacing exhibition displaying the work of a striking American painter, who has not yet had enough credit put to his name. Definitely worth a visit, the Serpentine’s latest exhibition will keep you thinking for days about the power art can have on those viewing it and those trying to curb it.

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