Thursday, 22 September 2016

John Samson: '1975 – 1983'

Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow until April 17th
Four stars

When the then twenty-two year old world darts champion Eric Bristow is captured throwing the tools of his trade to victory at the end of Arrows (1979), John Samson's 1979 study of the self-styled crafty Cockney as he tours working men's clubs inbetween being interviewed on local radio, Bristow is invested with a poetry that makes him appear part Robin Hood, part pop star. Similarly, in Samson's first film, Tattoo (1975), the closing tableaux of artfully posed illustrated men and women resemble inked-in Greek statues.

Kilmarnock-born Samson may have only made five short films between the ages of 29 and 37, but his fascination for largely working class sub-cultural fringes was on a par with Kenneth Anger, while pre-dating some of Jeremy Deller's work. Samson followed Tattoo with Dressing For Pleasure (1977), which unzips the assorted rubber, leather and latex-based fetish-wear scenes, and briefly features Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and his SEX shop assistant, Jordan. After this, the steam train enthusiasts of Britannia (1978) is a surprising diversion, although it and Arrows lay bare worlds similarly occupied by enthusiastic obsessives who are given rare voice.

Only the more polemical The Skin Horse (1983), a ground-breaking personal study of disabled people's relationship with sex originally screened on Channel 4, is invested with any kind of narration care of actor and on-camera host, Nabil Shaban. In this way, as he lays bare all the things hidden from polite society, Samson remains compassionately curious rather than voyeuristic.

While this first gallery presentation of Samson's work might have benefited from being framed within the socio-economic context of an era that scaled the post-permissive dawning of Thatcherism, the films themselves remain vital touchstones of a pre camera phone, pre YouTube age when underground culture was a genuinely samizdat form of community.

The List, September 2016

ends

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