BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 17 SEP 20

George Michael’s Homecoming

Dawn Mellor’s new mural in the north London suburb of Brent celebrates the star in all of his queer glory  

S
BY Sean Burns in Opinion | 17 SEP 20

If an artist installed an enormous mural of my hometown’s most famous son, Ozzy Osborne would loom large over central Birmingham. In Kingsbury, Brent, the painter Dawn Mellor has rendered a portrait of a musician of a slightly different palette – the 1980s heartthrob and bona fide gay icon George Michael. No more stale and difficult-to-relate-to public interventions here – finally, something meaningful to have faith in amidst the misery of COVID-19.

All Wham! puns aside, a nine-metre publicly funded portrait of a gay man, known as much for his deviancies as his stomping hits, is as subversive as it gets in the suburbs of southern England. Mellor is known for jilted, fan-art paintings of conflicted characters including the camp star Judy Garland, depicted like an extra from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Audrey Hepburn as the flighty heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) crossed with the central panel from Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). 

Studio Voltaire, Brent Borough of Culture 2020 and Create London
Dawn Mellor, George Michael TV Outside (detail), 2020. Courtesy: Studio Voltaire, Brent Borough of Culture 2020 and Create London; photograph: Benedict Johnson 

Mellor’s work, much like Bacon’s, reveals a hidden carnality beneath the thin veneer of surface respectability. Michael, then, is the artist’s perfect subject. As someone whose sexual proclivities constantly stirred outrage in the vile British tabloids, he struggled to live up to the accepted standards of how to behave in public life. The mural isn’t so much a redemption of Michael, but a celebration of all he was as a queer man. 

I grew up in the suburbs and, if he were immortalized at the end of my street, it would have provided some welcome solace on my way to the local park. Public art is a dicey business, and a lot of it can alienate the people it’s meant to serve. I can think of countless examples, where heartless hunks of metal land in the centre of communities. (See recent controversy around Anthony Gormley’s gigantic iron human proposed for Plymouth waterfront.) Mellor’s Michael is full of heart – and it’s not ironic or even comedic; it’s as serious as a sculpture by Richard Serra or Anthony Caro. 

Dawn Mellor, George Michael TV Outside (detail), 2020. Courtesy: Studio Voltaire, Brent Borough of Culture 2020 and Create London; photograph: Benedict Johnson 
Dawn Mellor, George Michael TV Outside, 2020. Courtesy: Studio Voltaire, Brent Borough of Culture 2020 and Create London; photograph: Benedict Johnson 

Queers pulls from a different canon to other artists, and in a different way. Michael is one of our own who, despite all of the homophobic abuse that he experienced as a consequence of narrow minds and conservative values, remains more popular than ever in the general consciousness. This colossal tribute is a homecoming for someone who, I’m sure, at times in his life, felt himself very far from home. (Michael died tragically on Christmas Day 2016 at the age of 54.) He is portrayed reclining in profile on an uneven trail of Yellow-Brick-Road-style Monopoly board tiles, caught somewhere between ‘GoGo!’ (as in Wham!’s 1984 hit ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’) and jail, a reference to his run-ins with the law. 

George Michael TV Outside will be accompanied by a series of workshops, talks and walks with local schools that Michael attended, including Roe Green Junior School and Kingsbury High School. This would have been unimaginable at the time of his public outing in 1998: Section 28 prohibited any mention of homosexuality in UK schools until 2003 (2001 in Scotland). To borrow words from Peter Saville in an interview with frieze last year ‘post war pop culture has been the great educator,’ and Mellor understands that Michael’s legacy is greater than just his music. 

Dawn Mellor, George Michael TV Outside (detail), 2020. Courtesy: Studio Voltaire, Brent Borough of Culture 2020 and Create London; photograph: Benedict Johnson 
Dawn Mellor, George Michael TV Outside (detail), 2020. Courtesy: Studio Voltaire, Brent Borough of Culture 2020 and Create London; photograph: Benedict Johnson 

Dawn Mellor’s George Michael TV Outside mural is co-commissioned by Studio Voltaire, Brent Borough of Culture 2020 and Create London. It will be unveiled on 19 September on Kingsbury Road, London, as part of the first Brent Biennial, which runs until 13 December.

Main image: Dawn Mellor, George Michael TV Outside (detail), 2020. Courtesy: Studio Voltaire, Brent Borough of Culture 2020 and Create London; photograph: Benedict Johnson 

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and frieze editorial assistant based in London, UK. 

SHARE THIS
MORE LIKE THIS