Sculptor Guy Portelli on ‘Wight Spirit, 1968-70’ and the Isle of Wight Music Festival
Guy Portelli enjoys an international reputation as an acclaimed sculptor. His work is featured in numerous private and public collections across Britain, Europe and America. After studying Interior Design and 3D Design at Medway College of Art, Portelli established his own studio in 1981. He is perhaps best known for his Pop Icon series (2008), which reimagines famous musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and John Lennon. The collection pays tribute to their lost era of musical stardom, drawing on an eclectic range of sources for inspiration — from Andy Warhol and comic book illustrations, to punk fashion trends and Las Vegas slot machines. It also won the artist an £80,000 investment on the BBC’s television programme Dragon’s Den. Portelli is an elected member of both the Royal British Society of Sculptors and the Royal Society of British Artists, for which he later became Vice President.
I caught up with Guy Portelli to talk more about the significance of the Isle of Wight festival and his current exhibition at Masterpiece Art.
The exhibition is a timely celebration of The Isle of Wight Festival, particularly the 1970 event which you referred to as ‘Europe’s Woodstock’. What was so significant about this particular iteration?
The celebration of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival has taken at least two years in the planning, with exhibitions and a festival planned on the original Afton Down site, which has had to be re-scheduled.
The festival started in 1968 as part of a fundraiser to build a public swimming pool. Ronnie, Ray and Bill Foulk were nominated to organise a fund raising festival. The line-up was made up of the top British bands, but the turning point came when they persuaded Jefferson Airplane to perform. Jefferson Airplane were at the top of their game and the only way to see the American bands was to go to the festivals. They were only playing one other UK concert, which meant the audience would have to cross the Solent to see them. A crew of 30 technicians arrived with 5 tons of equipment and an amazing light show, which was a new experience for the UK audience. The 1968 festival succeeded in delivering an international renowned event, and a platform on which to build for the following year. The 69 concert featured Bob Dylan, leading up to the 1970 edition which was a 5 day event with an audience estimated at 600,000. The line-up and audience figures justify any comparison with Woodstock, surpassing it in many ways.
You are not only exhibiting in the show but are also its curator. What do you want visitors to take away from it and how do you think it contributes to the legacy of the early years of this iconic festival?
It is such a big milestone in musical heritage and social history, and in reality the bursting of the 1960s ‘Peace and Love’ bubble. This exhibition features the 1970s photographs by Charles Everest and my contemporary sculptures. So we are looking at the same event 50 years apart.
I was too young to have been at the festival, but the source of inspiration for much of my work is from music of that era. So for me, being one step removed has helped me see it from a different perspective. Most certainly this festival has lost its place in social awareness due to government intervention at the time. But times they are a-changing! And we are stepping closer towards building a Heritage centre that celebrates the Isle of Wight festivals.
The Isle of Wight Music festival was re-launched in 2002 by John Giddings and is now one of the top UK festivals.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is an incredibly ambitious large-scale glass mosaic that you have created over the last few years. Can you tell us more about this artwork?
It is easy to come up with a concept but not always easy to execute it. The concept was to collect the handprints of musicians who performed and mosaic them on to a large panel. The project started with the 50th anniversary of 1968 and followed the timeline of the three festivals until the 1970 anniversary. Over 100 handprints have been collected and mosaiced on to a large panel.
To me the hand print is a signature of humanity: it says ‘I was here’. This applies to the cave man with his cave painting, or the teenager with graffiti tags, or the musicians who shared the stages of the Isle of Wight festivals.
The panel has the hand prints of musicians radiating out from the three festival sites. I would like to think of them as soundwaves or vibrations.
Each hand is a mosaiced cameo that reflects the identity of the musician, and these all interact with each other, creating a sculpture of many individuals but one whole. This, to me, is the essence of the festival.
Alongside the major mosaic you are presenting a number of other sculptural works, including homages to Melanie Safka, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and The Who. Can you say more about these and how they relate to your practice as a whole?
I have been building a collection of music-related sculptures for the last 40 years. Frustrated with the slow progress, I took my project on to BBC’s Dragons Den in 2008 and I succeeded in getting an investment of £80,000 and the publicity to get my work on the international stage.
Bob Dylan is the latest piece and is inspired by the set list that he performed on the day in 1969. The Jimi Hendrix sculpture fuses the Vietnam War with the hippy movement, creating an explosion of colour and energy. The Who sculpture uses deconstruction in order to mirror the band’s stage antics and use of pop art images.
How would you describe the relationship between the photographs in the show and the works you have created for it, do you consider them to be in dialogue?
The photographs compliment the sculpture and vice versa. I always like this combination, and having such a big selection of images really helped with the curation. I was concerned about the large size of the sculptures in the space, but that has worked out really well.
In addition to the exhibition, a documentary of the same name is being made. What is your involvement in this and can you share any of your future plans with us?
The documentary filming is building an archive of material for the future. Having looked at the bigger picture over the years the small details become fascinating. I am interested in film as an art form so I have strong visual ideas about how the documentary should look, and the collection of contacts has been very useful.
One of the points that has really come home in filming the documentary is that the Isle of Wight was such a backwater in the 1960s and suddenly to be central to the biggest music festival that has ever taken place not only gave the island a new sense of identity, but a great sense of pride for the teenage population. The Isle of Wight had experienced a cultural heyday in the 1860s with Tennyson and Julia Margaret Cameron, so the festivals were a second cultural wave, and the ideology was rooted in similar aspirations.
My hope is that this exhibition could go on tour, and it would be of interest in many countries.
Wight Spirit, 1968-70 is on view at Masterpiece Art Gallery now until the 5th September.
Please note: due to Covid-19 restrictions, the exhibition is by appointment only. Please contact by telephone, 020 3946 7881, or visit the gallery’s website for more information.
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