using gravestones to give the dead a whole new lease of life

Death may end the body, but it gives immortality to a name. Scott Covert has spent almost 40 years at the graves of celebrities, from actors to serial killers, the Shah of Iran in Cairo and Oscar Wilde in Père Lachaise. Using oil wax crayons, he makes detailed rubbings, then adorns them with colors and marks; sometimes a mass of inscriptions is built up into a larger, collage form. He refers to the names, or the works, as “characters”. Unlike people, they cannot die.

Covert turns 70 next year, yet C’est la vie, at Studio Voltaire in south London, is somehow his first solo exhibition outside America. It comprises eight works, plus one group: the former are hung across three walls at a meditative range, while spread high and wide over the fourth are 105 smaller Lifetime Drawings, which predominantly (though not exclusively) feature a single rubbing each. Covert has been making this series since 1985, when he began with Florence Ballard, “the dead Supreme”, buried in Warren, Michigan. Back in New York, he did Billie Holiday and Mae West, and hundreds have followed since.

The inscriptions pop off the walls with casual glamor: Bette Davis, James Dean, Ella Fitzgerald, Sharon Tate. Different typefaces jostle like statements of personality; crosses and fleurs-de-lis strike the textual equivalent of a pose. Some works seem mere tributes to the magnetic power of famous names, but a few act more craftily. You might read a transparent irony in the adjacence of Donna Summer and Andrew Breitbart – first thought: “gay icon” and “conservative firebrand” – yet who voiced homophobia from the stage, and who argued that the Republicans should be more pro-LGBT? Reputations tell good stories, Covert suggests, but a story is not a truth.

The best work here, by a distance, is a standalone. In Composition No 2: Nikita Khrushchev Meets the Rosenbergs (1996–2010), amid a visual cacophony of dozens of names, one deposed leader and two executed spies convene on the stones of the afterlife. The picture has the energy of a Rauschenberg: lively in every direction you look.

After he made the Ballard rubbing, back in 1985, Covert showed it to Cookie Mueller, cult actress and writer, who encouraged him to go on. Shortly before dying four years later, as a result of complications from Aids, she wrote a note to her peers that could be the guiding spirit of Covert’s show: “I am not the first person to tell you that you will never die. You simply lose your body… You will be free.”

From Wednesday January 25 until April 23;

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