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Alex Pollard, ‘Robin Hood, Jack Shepard’, 2008, oil on canvas

Robin Hood, Dickensian pickpockets and American hobos are the plucky anti-heroes of Alex Pollard’s new body of work. Is this some Boy’s Own adventure-style nostalgia trip? Certainly the hobo signs (such as the disarmingly cute cat used to signal to fellow travellers that a kind lady lives at this address) that are etched into the collection of ‘Hobo Nickels’, 2008, (scaled-up, bronze and aluminium versions of the coins that hobos liked to customise), seem more childlike than artisan.

By contrast, the paintings, with their camp references to the Victorian fairy genre, appear more urbane. Pollard has dandified his characters, playing up, for example, Robin Hood’s fine moustache, perfectly arched eyebrows and shapely calves. It helps to remember that Pollard’s earlier sculptures, especially the dinosaurs made from oversized wooden rulers, made a feature of this tension between naughty schoolboy charm and selfindulgent artistic virtuosity.

Taking the hobo signs along with the exhibition’s title, Tea-Leaf Demeanour (cockney rhyming slang for thief), it becomes clear that Pollard is interested not just in a criminal underworld or nomadic underclass, but in their secret codes and dissimulation as a cultural pose. The letters spelling out ‘tea leaf’ can only just be discerned against a similarly coloured brick wall in an eponymous painting, as in a colour blindness test but with the letters painted in mirror writing to add further confusion. Rather than explain these codes, Pollard jumbles them up and takes them out of context, so that the symbols no longer point to specific meanings, but stand as generic signs for a language we’re unlikely to understand without the help of Wikipedia.

This game of concealing and revealing is especially exaggerated in his paintings. Symbols, even whole figures, are repeated within and across them, often stretched and deformed as in a hall of mirrors. Pollard organises painted elements as if caught in a vortex, spiralling round like a twisted comic strip and then sucked downwards into the depths of the canvas.

This complex compositional device echoes the evasiveness of Pollard’s outlaw subjects, such as Jack Sheppard, notoriously capable of escaping even the most secure prison. Yet these distortion techniques are also part of the canon of abstract painting, a language of initiates as much as that of the hobos, one might say, from cubism to Chagall, and even spin paintings.

It is claimed that Pollard ‘rejects traditional platitudes of political critique with belligerent non-commitment and dandified grace’, a warning perhaps, not to view the show as an allegory for our current economic and political malaise. One could counter that the romanticisation of outlaw culture contributes to its de-politicisation, but then Pollard doesn’t so much romanticise as self-consciously trivialise the legends he depicts, emasculating the men and turning their language into playschool props in an art world performance of wilful opacity. The signs and symbols that were once vital aids to a dissident’s survival are now easy prey for the parasitic artist always hungry for new codes through which to affirm their distance from the crowd.

Jennifer Thatcher is director of talks at the ICA, London