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Sam Dargan 71/72/73 by Nick Richardson

Sam Dargan ’71: 72: 73’ Sam Dargan’s landscapes do not depict the places their titles claim they do. Often they’re not pictures of real places at all. ’71:72:73’ contains a pair of imposing canvases titled ‘A Trip around the World with the European Left Nos. 1 + 2’. One shows yellowing fields in late summer and is subtitled ‘Segrate, outskirts of Milan, 14 March 1972’; the other, of roads stretching towards a mountainous horizon and a brooding sky, pretends to represent the ‘outskirts of El Alto, 12 May 1973’. In reality, ‘Segrate’ was worked up from a photograph of some scrubby wasteland in Bexley, South-East London, and the picture of ‘El Alto’ from a collage of different photos, none of them photos of Bolivia. A smaller landscape, ‘Mischief Making at Fellowship Farm, PA, 9 March 1971’, is actually a picture of a farm in the Cotswolds in 2016. Dargan has never been to Milan, Bolivia, or Pennsylvania.  

The titles of these paintings direct the viewer towards now-obscure episodes in the history of the Left. Segrate is where the publisher-turned-Partisan Giangiacomo Feltrinelli accidentally blew himself up in March 1972 while trying to sabotage a high-voltage power-line. In Dargan’s picture you can see Feltrinelli’s peach-coloured camper van half-hidden by a tree. El Alto is where Monika Ertl, a German It-girl turned revolutionary, was killed by Bolivian security forces in March 1973. And Fellowship Farm was where the members of the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI hid out after robbing the FBI’s headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania in March 1971. In a similar way to Dargan’s previous show at the Rokeby Gallery, which used landscape as a way into the histories of the Paris Commune and the Baader-Meinhof gang, the innocent-looking surfaces of ’71: 72: 73’ provide portals into the violent ideological skirmishes that took place across Europe and the US in the early 1970s.  

Another pair of pictures, ‘Revolutionary Sweethearts Nos. 1 + 2’, reproduce the cover art of magazines from the same era. An issue of the German magazine Müncher shows Ertl in a field wearing khakis, holding a pistol and proudly dangling a turkey by its legs. The other picture shows Feltrinelli on the cover of the Partisans’ PAM magazine, striding over a mountain range with a machine gun and a ragged green flag in his hands. But the magazine covers are dog-eared and water-damaged, their once-bold yellows and reds have faded. Dargan’s pictures make a point of not being the kind of propaganda images that these once were. If they are propaganda at all, they are propaganda of a less direct and more haunted kind.  

’71: 72: 73’ memorialises a time of idealistic struggle when anything seemed possible, but does so from a time of resignation – our current age – in which the idealism of Ertl, the Partigiani and the Citizens’ Commission looks almost naive. The tone of Dargan’s landscapes is sombre: the skies are darkening, the palette is limited, there’s a conspicuous absence of red. There’s also a conspicuous absence of people. The heroes of the stories behind these pictures have disappeared and their deeds are being slowly forgotten, while the landscapes they inhabited blankly endure. In 2005 Dargan produced a graphic novel called Neverlutionary that features a protagonist who wants but fails to become a political activist. A similar sense of frustration underlies the work in ’71: 72: 73’. How do we rebel when we’re so enmeshed, harassed and exhausted by the systems that contain us that the feats of a former generation of revolutionaries no longer seem feasible, or even useful?  

2017, copyright Nick Richardson.