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Tom Lubbock: the pain and the pleasure

The art critic's collages capture the hurt and hilarity that has also marked his battle with a brain tumour

A many-headed creature with gurning, snarling, goofy heads, whose multiple necks are a tangle of bleached, sinuous branches, and whose heads are part fish, part sheep, part scary undersea life, writhes off the wall.

This beast, a collage by critic and illustrator Tom Lubbock, began life as a sort of modern-day Cerebus, the neighbourhood mutt from Hades who would definitely contravene the Dangerous Dogs Act. When Lubbock made it in 2000, it was just a fanciful thing on his drawing board, made of scraps of found photos. But in the context of a new show of Lubbock's work at Victoria Miro in London, My Personal Beast seems a very different monster – as the brain tumour, diagnosed in 2008, whose ravages Lubbock described so movingly and profoundly in the Observer last month. The work is entitled My Personal Beast. We all have our personal beasts, the monsters roaming the psyche. This one turned around and bit its owner.

It sprang from the main section of the Independent, where Lubbock worked as a regular illustrator, producing a weekly collage from 1999-2004; since 1997 he has also been the paper's chief art critic, following my own brief stint on the paper. Week after week Lubbock contrived his arresting images, given free rein to comment on the news or just to let his imagination roam. His personality, so wry and full of insight, and never taking things at face value, is as much in his collages as it is in his writing. Of all my newspaper art critic colleagues, he has seemed the most individual and acute, a very gifted writer, and the one I like the best, whether I agree with him or not. On those hideous group press trips critics often take (and which some of us do our best to avoid), he has always been someone I'm pleased to see. He wouldn't loudmouth his opinions, and he always went his own way. I've got to know Lubbock more since the onset of his illness. Last winter we went to Leeds together, to look at a cabinet of 17th-century Qing Dynasty Chinese philosophers' stones at the Henry Moore Institute. He'd started having fits and could no longer travel alone.

Articulate and enthusiastic about the things he loves, harrumphing and funny, a man of appetites, he was already beginning to fumble for words, to stall in the middle of sentences, waylaid by a gulf that would open up between the idea and the word, the names of things deserting him. He'd have to go the long way around to corral his thoughts. He seemed to view what was happening to him with fascination as much as a deep frustration. He could be funny about it, and still can, even though it is progressively difficult to know what he's trying to express. Hospital visits can be like a game of charades, everyone trying to guess the word he's searching for. It is painful and hilarious, just like his collages.

Some can make you laugh out loud – his fanciful pub sign, adorned with bits of bodies, for a hostelry called The Human Genome. Or the one of a close up of a nostril caught in mid-sneeze, with a baby being born amidst the spray, a scrunched-up face surfing a gush of liquid. How primal we become when we sneeze. Another work, The Museum of Labels, made in response to the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, shows gallery after gallery whose exhibits are displays of nothing but labels and explanatory wall panels. Tate Modern was a sea of them when it opened. In the picture Lubbock's texts are screeds of nothing, just like the real thing. Like me, Lubbock detests all the misinformative guff on gallery walls that tell you what to think and feel, all those inscrutable messages from the curators of interpretation.

It's That Man Again (made for Easter in 2001) has Jesus as a jack-in-the-box, and is also a reference to ITMA, the second world war radio comedy series starring Tommy Handley; "That Man" was originally Hitler. "Become Homosexual" reads a stark (though imaginary) council billboard on a terrace end-wall, Lubbock mocking the appalling Clause 28, which banned the "promotion" of homosexuality. The council logo on the poster belongs to the fictitious Cookerborough City Council. Cookerborough? Kookaburra? I mis-read it as Cockermouth.

The Law has a square-off road marking in the gutter, a designated smoking area planted with fag-ends. A government health warning appends the Great British Cigarette Advert, with a field of cigarette package tombstones, and looks like a Rachel Whiteread installation, or Antony Gormley's Allotment. Lubbock's collages have lots of digs and homages to other art in them. Lubbock's After Holman Hunt has a desert in which the Pre-Raphaelite's biblical Scapegoat is replaced by an Afghan hound, while After Chardin has a mouse edging across a table towards a still life that has been eaten, leaving only crumbs on the table, and a loaded mousetrap. It is funny, atmospheric, unnerving and bleak, and perfectly judged.

Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam cartoon animations are in there somewhere, and Lubbock also much admires Thomas Bewick, William Blake's contemporary, and has written passionately about Bewick's tiny woodblock vignettes, with their earthy humour and their frightening abjections – the flavour of which got into his own work. Lubbock the collagist and critic is that rare, accessible – and perhaps very English – mix of the genial and the dangerous. It is good for a critic to know how things are made, the materiality of images, and how thoughts rear up from the shuffling of scraps. There are many among us that haven't a clue.

Lubbock's works are as much art as illustration, and were always more than merely illustrative. Often, they'd take you to places the mind would otherwise balk at. Frequently, his collages tilt at mortality – as well as being funny, sharp, picaresque, baleful and acute. Ouch, you'd say, when you first looked at them, opening the Saturday paper. One collage, from the end of November 2002, shows a prosaic public information panel, such as you might find planted near the entrance to a hospital. "Everything Is On Fire", it announces, followed by a section from the Buddha's Fire Sermon, concerning the liberation from suffering through a detachment from the senses and the mind. It begins: "The eye is on fire, the visible is on fire, the contact with the visible is on fire, be it pleasure, be it pain, be it neither pleasure nor pain." This text roars incongruously across Lubbock's imaginary info panel – apocalyptic, alarming, transcendent. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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