Exhibition dates: 24 September – 20 November 2004
"If being modern means up-to-date, then at numerous times in the
course of modern art’s evolution the ‘latest thing’ was to look back. This was
true for Picasso in 1915, when he began to pastiche the style of the great
academic painter Ingres, and it was true again in the 1980s, when contemporary
artists such as David Salle started to appropriate images from the old masters."
'Year Zero' brings together a new generation of painters who draw upon historical imagery and idioms to speak about the present. The artists revitalise the tradition of modern painting that runs through Picasso, Picabia and David Salle, in contrast to that connecting Malevich with Frank Stella, Yves Klein with Robert Ryman, and Daniel Buren with Alan Charlton. Salle, here, is a precursor and point of orientation for the younger generation. Rather than attempting to create a pictorial ‘year zero’, the artists respond to the extraordinary proliferation of images characterising modern visual culture by resignifying the outmoded, forgotten, archaic, or arcane. Plundering the world of images from the past to create new narratives about art and its place in the world, the artists find that “there are revolutionary energies in ‘the outmoded’”, as Walter Benjamin argued.
At the height of the French Revolution, Robespierre’s government marked a decisive breach with the ancién régime by founding a new calendar. This new form of time, the Thermidorian calendar, signalled a radical break with the past and the introduction of an entirely new order. The proto-modernist ideal of starting history afresh meant that 1792 became ‘Year Zero’, and the past a blank ‘tabula rasa’. By contrast, the artists here perceive the past not as a unidirectional path, but as if fluid or mercurial. Theirs, we might say, is a liquid history.
Essays by Alistair Robinson and Lorna Dryden.
David Salle, 'Satori Three Inches Within Your Heart', 1988, Tate. © DACS 2004
© Estate of David Salle / DACS, London
“Baroque allegory sees the corpse only from the outside. Modernity sees it also from within.” Walter Benjamin
Luke Caulfield‘s ‘Diachronoptych’ series consists of pairs of paintings – one monochrome, one vividly coloured; one interior, one still life. The pairings establish a web of criss-crossing narrative threads between the two, to speak about the history of painting and about our image-saturated present. Each monochrome work in the pair represents what initially appears to be an empty institutional corridor; the kind of banal interior space with which we are all familiar and yet are ‘no-places’. By contrast, the coloured canvases seem to present imagery from leather jackets or T-shirts sporting heavy metal insignia. Rendered in extreme close-up and selective focus, the insignia take on frightening and vivid life: grinning skulls feel to loom vertiginously out of the picture plane, threatening us. And macabre lines of text – ‘Hell’ or ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ unexpectedly act as garlands around the picture. Yet the artist provides us with no point of orientation with which to approach such heavily loaded, if unorthodox subject matter.
Caulfield stages what appears to be an unlikely conversation between subcultures, finding common ground between the pre-modern iconography of baroque painting, and the romantic excesses of heavy rock. The artist transforms subject matter marginalised by modernism and our mainstream culture into highly charged pictorial dramas, and into meditations on painting as an art. Caulfield gives new currency to what might be thought to be an almost entirely forgotten pictorial tradition: that of ‘vanitas’ painting. ‘Vanitas’ paintings are traditionally associated with dense allegorical compositions, filled with symbols of our mortality and worldly vanity. No other pictorial idiom could be further from our contemporary beliefs. When we are surrounded by images of instantaneity and idealisation – of celebrity and fantasy – Caulfield’s images act as slow, patient reminders of a different worldview to our own. They also remind us how painting inevitably requires our historical imagination to function.
There is an unbridgeable gulf between our own ”accelerated culture”, as Douglas Coupland calls it, and the world which spawned the tradition of ‘vanitas’ painting. The two belief systems might be respectively epitomised by Buckminster Fuller’s modernist creed “everything is known to us”; and by Gloucester’s famous line in King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport.” If there is a single work which recalls these words most perfectly, and is the fullest expression of baroque allegory, it is arguably Salvator Rosa’s 'L'Umana Fragilità' (‘The Fragility of Man’). In Rosa’s painting, “dramatic encounters and a preoccupation with the transience of human life [are visualised through] daring compositional inventiveness, strong emotional effects, and dramatic use of light and colour. The painting rewards long contemplation, not just because of the seriousness of the message and the profusion of symbols, but because details actually seem to emerge from the gloom the longer one gazes at it.” These words could easily be a description of Caulfield’s most recent works. Similarly, skeletal figures reach out at us from the darkest of black grounds. And yet these remain unmistakably images of our own time. Perhaps most obviously, the artist sets up almost photographic illusions, only to qualify and complicate them.
At first, we notice that the artist’s heavily varnished surfaces metaphorically bounce us outwards, rather than inviting us into illusory depth or eliciting our imaginative empathy. The grounds, too, seem to possess an unnervingly dense, crystalline lambency, resembling that of black granite. Their dark lustre appears to both absorb and reflect light at the same time – attracting us whilst imparting a distance between ourselves and the subject matter. In Diachronoptych I and II, flames emit an impenetrable radiance which seems to glow from within the canvas itself, and yet such central details are unexpectedly thrown out of focus, as though the image was in motion blur or seen through a monocular camera-lens focussed onto the background. This sends our eye into a tailspin, and we shuttle endlessly around the picture plane. We unconsciously switch between depth of fields to resolve the image, trying and failing to gauge the picture’s illusory depth. Caulfield endlessly defers any visual resolution, in part as a counterpoint to the pleasures and sense of the real offered by the photographic image.
The coloured halves of the Diachronoptych pairs are, as the artist describes, “hung with black chains, dripping with glossy varnish, and made ‘heavy’ with deep stretchers; positioned high with a wooden platform, they overhang the viewer in the manner of religious paintings and are seen as though they were in a church”. Installed in such an overtly theatrical way, they invite an emotive response – whilst being positively overburdened with dramatic expectation. By contrast, the monochrome halves of the pairs are painted in matt acrylics on shallow stretchers. Whilst we remain convinced by their illusory space, they also flatten out pictorial space. Each seems to offer privileged access to the artists’ many hours spent in the studio: we catch a glimpse of the other panel at the moment of its making. Caulfield’s working processes, time-intensive as they are, repay an intensity of experience by inviting us into a three-way ‘trialogue’ about the making, the display and the reception of works of art. He invites us to contemplate how works of art are able to give shape to something as intangible and complex as our experience of the passing of time. The historian Ferdinand Braudel believed that time acts upon us at different speeds, so that our consciousness is shaped by an awareness of ‘history’ moving at several different velocities, or rates of change. Caulfield’s paintings seem to act in a parallel way, embodying both the quotidian realities of the present and the “longue durée” of our shared histories. By combining a palpable sense of historical time with a mythical, even apocalyptic time, the artist investigates how we transport ourselves from the present to the past.
Lali Chetwynd’s adaptations of neo-classical portrait drawings have recently been described by critic Charlotte Edwards as “explorations of ugliness and social acceptability using references from high art and trash culture”. The artist’s range of influences and source material intentionally encompasses the good, the bad, and the ugly: from “Ed Wood to the Marx Brothers, Fassbinder and Brecht to Ken Russell...” Although the artist works across painting, performance, and sculpture, two driving forces animate all of her practice. The idea of performance runs throughout all of her myriad activities, as does the process of making unexpected anthropological crossovers. Indeed Chetwynd herself describes her approach to art-making as “re-contextualising cultural figures that are taboo... I’m drawn to the shambolic, the carnivalesque and the grotesque. Visual overload and cross-cultural referencing are the crotch of my practice.” [sic]
Which naturally brings us to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres’s portraits are, arguably, some of the most astonishing feats of draughtsmanship ever undertaken. His virtuoso technique effortlessly conjures an elegant world of refined manners, always on the cusp of becoming an idealised vision of anodyne gentility. Ingres’s drawings, such as the ‘Portrait of Mr and Mrs Joseph Woodhead and Mr Henry Comber’, were produced for super-affluent ‘grand tourists’ as records of their Italian travels. They appear to us today as the embodiment of nineteenth century bourgeois ease and confidence. All of which makes them ideal material for Chetwynd to interrupt with “the shambolic and the grotesque”. A perverse choice of source material to appropriate, to be sure, but such a carnivalesque attitude to its transformation also recalls another moment in the history of art. In 1915, at the height of cubism, Picasso took the equally perverse strategy to remake Ingres’s very same drawings. Immediately following his radical experiments with abstraction and found objects, this classicising turn was intended to wrong-foot anyone expecting a linear progression of ideas.
A century earlier, Ingres’s mellifluous draughtsmanship gave expression to the sitters’ perception of themselves as at the apex of both the social and evolutionary pyramids. Chetwynd reorients these assumptions, instead picturing barely domesticated animals exuding a raw, splenetic energy. She seems to wrench the characters from their soporific state, lying dormant in our collective fiction of ‘history’, so that they might laugh at our vanities. Given such a rude awakening, her figures become endowed with an urgent, animated presence; their defining characteristic is an insistent, uninhibited corporeality. The overwhelming impression is of the sitters’ social masks of gentility and refinement having been rudely stripped asunder. Whereas Ingres’s characters wore uniformly decorous expressions, Chetwynd’s holler, guffaw and stare back at us. Rather than quietly remaining objects of contemplative immersion, the effect of Chetwynd’s subjects belligerently returning our gaze is to make them brazenly ‘theatrical’, to adapt Michael Fried’s term. They seem to become players in the ‘theatrum mundi’ – actors on the historical stage – once again.
The dislocation between the sitters’ graceful carriages and their grotesque countenances turns Ingres’s icons of chaste classical good taste into startling, visceral confrontations between sitter and viewer. Chetwynd’s performances themselves are akin to charades, most often featuring home-made masks which carry cheaply photocopied images of celebrities, so that an actor ‘becomes’ that character simply by the audience’s force of imagination. The rudimentary illusions created, and lack of unnecessary artifice, are echoed by her two dimensional works. Chetwynd knows that the most potent illusions can be created with the most perfunctory means, requiring only our willing complicity in the enterprise, as EH Gombrich observed in ‘Meditations on a Hobby Horse’.
We might see Chetwynd’s painting process as the means to create a world of make-believe for us to temporarily inhabit. Whereas Ingres’s effortless, sinuous line draws our attention to the two-dimensional and ornamental qualities of his image, Chetwynd’s own playful, spontaneous lines are made simply by tracing over reproductions. Instead of elegant, restrained expressions, the sitters sport florid, rumbustious faces. These fleshly countenances are rapidly brought to rude life, with urgent, staccato brushmarks. The artist makes the act of painting appear more a freewheeling, spontaneous performance, than a sedate and calculated contrivance fit only for drawing rooms and salons.
The artist’s reinterpretation of the genre of portraiture – as seen through performance – also draws our attention to the sheer clunking artifice which it involves. Chetwynd’s are portraits stripped of their usual commemorative, celebratory, or redemptive functions. Useless as records of appearance for posterity, they become parodies of the original owners’ assertions of social status, elegance and good manners. Instead they might best be read as anti-portraits or ‘meta-portraits’; they are more meditations on the performative nature of identity and individuality than assessments of character or records of facial features. Indeed, we could easily draw the conclusion from the works that ‘individuality’ is a blatantly unstable and ludicrous scaffold, used mostly to cover the bestial lifeforce within. By drawing attention to the crude mechanics of ‘civilised’ behaviour and social role-play, the artist allows the shared conceits of hierarchy and rank to become simply risible. In both her performances and painted portraits, Chetwynd gives full-blooded comic expression to the rude disjunctures between the social masks and the private faces that we all adopt.
‘Reunion 3’, 2003, pencil and acrylic on paper
Zoë Mendelson’s drawings, paintings and painted installations examine what the artist calls “the culture of politeness”: Mendelson is fascinated by our shared conventions of ‘polite’ behaviour and the belief systems they serve, as well as how they lead us into inherent contradictions. By “weaving fantasies with roots in both children’s book illustration and erotic drawing”, the artist intertwines a panoply of images to tap into our shared memories and anxieties. Rather than choosing canvas, the artist paints directly onto both panels and heavy, dark-wood Victorian furniture from customised cabinets to writing desks. Encountering such domestic objects – which our grandparents might have used, or which could have come from a Merchant Ivory costume drama – generates both familiarity and estrangement. Although remote in time, we feel able to invest them with personal, sentimental associations, as they bear the marks of daily, repetitive use.
Mendelson's recent paintings seem overloaded with swirling patterns, combining spare outline pencil drawings with intensely hued images of flora, fauna, and opulent Victorian interiors. At first glance, the proliferation of ornamental imagery and luxuriant bourgeois decoration sends our eye spinning around the pictures surfaces, finding pleasure in rich detailing and brilliant colours. Each image seethes with proliferating decorative forms, as though the world had become over-populated with the trappings of polite society. After an initial momentary encounter, we are most likely to focus upon the representations of backdrops and interiors. These set constructions in brilliant royal blues and velvet reds draw us into Mendelson's make-believe world. However, their vivid primaries seem, after slightly closer examination, to become lurid or even hallucinatory hues, rather than National-Trust-style historical reconstructions. If we allow ourselves to become initially seduced by the artist’s painterly pleasures, shortly after, we are likely to be left uneasy.
Moreover, the artist's transformation of the decorative appendages of fruit and flowers, which make up the classical language of ornament, goes much further than any Victorian would contemplate. Instead of betokening nature's 'bounty' or 'fecundity', the natural world seems to be filled with wild, desiring objects. Lilies in full bloom open their petals towards us – brilliantly hued, blossoming and twisting flowers become symbols of a voluptuous sexuality. Birds and butterflies live not only across the panels, but over their edges and along the walls of the gallery, as if burgeoning life was spreading uncontrollably outwards. Yet after taking delight in the mesmerising colours of the natural world, we cannot fail to notice the dribbles and globules of glutinous white paint spilling over the panels' edges.
In the multi-panel work ‘Pier’, part of which is illustrated here, the artist plays havoc with our predecessors’ contradictory sets of ideas concerning our most basic impulses, desires, and anxieties. Mendelson invites us to peer inside a functionless piece of furniture – a cabinet – to examine behind the closed doors, where we are drawn into a dislocated, elliptical narrative. With no central compositional focus, our eyes leap from detail to detail, from Victorian bed to modern motel room. By implication we make manifold jump-cuts between both time and space, piecing together an impossible scenario.
The work’s undertow of an erotic charge gradually transforms each setting in our mind. Grand nineteenth century interiors, from theatre boxes and carousel carriages to luxuriant hotels appear as settings for forbidden Victorian trysts. Modern interiors come into focus as being scenes from contemporary low-budget erotica. Each piece becomes the meeting point for two incompatible cultures: high society becomes intertwined with a demi-monde of actresses in low-rent motel rooms. The ultra-polite congregates with the decidedly impolite. As the artist puts it, “ladies-who-lunch take their place next to amateur porn stars. Each distractedly acts out daydreams in a stately-home milieu, pulling both the latter gutterwards, and the motel-rooms towards a High Victorian elegance.”
It is drawing, however, which underpins each aspect of the artist’s practice: she remarks, “I use drawing to articulate obsession.” A seamless, uninterrupted line, snaking over the surface of her works acts as the vehicle to secrete forbidden imagery discretely into compositions. Whereas flora and fauna are lusciously rendered, we gradually become aware of the presence of teasing girls in suggestive poses. Uniformly, human figures are rendered as empty, hollowed-out, outline drawings which are encompassed by a web of lines across the picture surface. The girls’ poses and facial expressions, drawn from the formulaic repertoire of adult entertainment, seem devoid of any interior life.
Indeed, it is as though their inner life was rewritten elsewhere, displaced onto the flora and fauna, and backdrops. Driven to search for a narrative closure which remains perpetually out of reach, as the artist remarks we are trapped inside “inconclusive narratives with varying degrees of involvement and fulfilment”.
‘Homage’; ‘influence’; ‘synthesis’; ‘appropriation’; ‘adaptation’; ‘quotation’; ‘pastiche’; ‘plagiarism’. The very fact that we possess such a bewildering vocabulary with which to articulate the relation of one artist to another is symptomatic of an intractable problem. Alan Michael’s work, overloaded with references, visual quotations, borrowings – call them what you will – seems to expand the problem exponentially. What, we might ask encountering Michael’s work, might be said to be the author’s own; our own; or begged, borrowed and stolen? Who is indebted to whom?
The literary critic Harold Bloom coined the phrase “the anxiety of influence” in the 1970s to describe the problem of how to describe artists’ relationships to their sources and predecessors. If anything the problem has become ever more entangled as the weight of images in the world has grown. The artists labelled ‘postmodern’ in the eighties, such as David Salle, approached the problem by throwing every style or type of image into a mixing pot, as if it were possible to level out every hierarchy, or revise every existing form of classification. Michael, like Salle, has drawn upon a panoramic range of source material, and both have reworked images by Lucian Freud (amongst others) in the past. However, unlike artists from the older generation, Michael doesn’t entertain mere pastiche or travesty of works from ‘the canon’; indeed he avoids anything which might be thought obvious, or readily explicable within a linear logic.
Michael seems to foreclose the possibility of us adequately defining his relationship to the artists whose styles and subjects he borrows (recreates, adapts, reworks). Nor does it seem possible to properly characterise his non-art range of sources without being left in contradictions. The artist pre-empts any logical connection between his constellation of competing, rather than connected references. Each painting creates such an impossibly circuitous ‘narrative drive’ that we are only left circling around ideas rather than gaining any point of entry or closure.
The artist, recognising that all artistic endeavour is a question of interdependence rather than sovereign autonomy, also recognises that we inescapably search for fixity of meaning for and for tidy solutions to the issue of causation. What, he asks, if we were to remember that the Latin word ‘textum’ simply means ‘web’? Rather than establishing a mere ‘dialogue’ with his material or insisting on the past as irretrievably lost, Michael takes a different tack. His personal investment in the (ostensible) subject matter becomes impossible to discern. In fact, it becomes impossible to tell if he even has any. (In the past he has written, “Someone once said to me ‘Why would you put something you’re interested in into your work?’, and I kind of agree.”) As Tom Morton has recently written about the artist, “his real concern is the moment when the source material he references fades into a new fiction... If referencing is a social contract, it often seems like Michael has torn it up to create a near impermeable private language.” This hermetic language throws us back onto our own resources, independent of the artist’s direction. Whilst frequently referencing cinematic imagery, Michael expresses an ambivalent relation to the idea of the artist-as-auteur. Our only points of certainty are that the artist keeps us engaged with a delightfully light touch and splinters of humour.
Unlike painters from previous generations, Michael doesn’t work in series; each painting is a unique combination of ideas and images packed into a single frame, never to be repeated. Moreover, Michael’s technique never resolves itself comfortably into a recognisable signature style, but rather is perpetually a means to an end, deferring and complicating the relationship between the artist’s own position, those of the protagonists represented in his pictures, and the ideas of the original image-maker(s). Flipping between one style and the next without a single programme or sequence, Michael appears to emphasise the plasticity of time, as though our memory banks were best thought of as random-access libraries, which we were at liberty to reorder and recategorise at will.
Morton has also remarked, “quotation depends on a ‘cordon sanitaire’ of inverted commas. Do away with them and something quoted might be mistaken for something meant.” Indeed the artist’s descriptions of his practice and methods of working emphasise how the character of an image is dependent on its ‘user group’, or ownership: “I’m interested in representing the quotation as commodity; its relation to new bourgeois capital; and its relation to struggles for supremacy in general.” Michael’s ultra-elliptical cultural connections invite us to speculate about the relationship of images to the social constituencies that mobilise them. His strategy endlessly complicates that the relationship between image and ideology, so that it is never simply a form of one-way traffic. On the contrary, his practice echoes Baudelaire’s conclusion that the most definitive experience of visual modernity lies in “the sudden leaps of consciousness” which giant cities generate.
‘Untitled’, 2004, oil on canvas. Courtesy HOTEL, London and Sorcha Dallas, Glasgow
“I learned to think like a modernist: to look for the fault lines between the present and the past, the place where ruptures took place.” Linda Grant, ‘When I Lived in Modern Times’
Modernists and Marxist historians alike have, over the twentieth century, laid emphasis upon the radical differences of the past from the present, foregrounding the ruptures, discontinuities, and breaks between previous epochs and our own. Most famously, Walter Benjamin described the past in poetic terms as wholly opaque and outside our understanding, representing breaches in historical time as rendering the past as irretrievable, lost, alien – “the past can only be seized as an image that flashes up at the moment of its recognisability.”
By contrast, Daniel Sinsel's extraordinarily crafted oil paintings and quixotic objects echo Northern European renaissance and neoclassical painting whilst never appearing anachronistic, recherché or retrograde. Drawing upon sources from Dürer to Jacques-Louis David, he creates peculiarly compelling objects and images which are characterised by both strangeness and wit. As the artist notes, “art-historical references, traditional crafts and allusions to romantic outdoor (and often juvenile) pastimes, like penknife carving, invest the cultural object with a sense of archaism.” Whether overtly or ‘sotto voce’, his works uncover the latent eroticism of neoclassical painting.
In one recent, untitled work, a carved twig and a penknife float in an indeterminate space over a simple brilliant blue ground. Both the ground and penknife are exquisitely realised through an intensely crafted paint handling, where thousands of painstakingly minute brushmarks create a jewel-like, limpid surface. It is as though the work had been created in egg tempera rather than oil, each mark with its own crystalline precision. As though a religious devotional icon, the penknife is adorned with droplets of blood, which are, upon closer inspection, revealed to be real rubies. Such personal, esoteric symbolism defies ready explanation, and Sinsel leaves our imagination in free-fall. Creating an abstruse personal mythology and working in what might easily be taken to be a wilfully pre-modern idiom are part of the artist’s high-risk strategy. However, his extraordinary dexterity with paint and his unique range of motifs keep us enthralled.
Sinsel’s early work represented beautiful, idealised male youths in bucolic scenarios, which sat half-way between classical Arcadias and contemporary gay erotica. His representations of athletic male bodies were never merely titillating, rather inhabiting some otherworldly and blissful utopia. Whilst phallic and sexual imagery still permeates his iconography, it now takes the most unlikely and ambiguous forms, often being sublimated into still lifes or foreign landscapes. In earlier work, it had seemed like Sinsel’s iconography was converging with that of David and the Revolutionary neoclassicists of the 1780s. Giving pictorial embodiment to the post-revolutionary ‘new order’, David depicted an ideal republic inhabited by athletic male bodies. Thomas Crow’s analysis of the classicising turn of these revolutionary years could easily describe Sinsel’s beautiful youths. Describing David’s images as “exemplary realms offering a glimpse of physical perfection”, Crow has argued “powerful shifts in the philosophical underpinnings of the visual arts moved painting more and more into a single-sex frame of reference, [creating] an increasing masculinization of advanced art… Artists were asked not only to imagine military and civic virtue in traditionally masculine terms, but were compelled to imagine the entire spectrum of desirable human qualities from battlefield heroics to eroticized corporeal beauty as male. This imagination of life through the lens of exclusively male sociability presents itself as a moral, intellectual and erotic utopia.”
Sinsel also echoes, if only distantly, other contemporary artists who have attempted to give shape to their personal visions of a better world through image-making. Most notably, Wolfgang Tillmans has described his practice as an attempt to visualise his own personal utopia: to ”give shape to my own world”. Utopia, of course, means no-place, and Sinsel exploits painting’s ability to create its own imaginary timeframe. His characters and objects inhabit a purely imaginary time independent of conventional chronologies, where past and present can interpenetrate so that we cannot correlate it with any clearly defined segment of time. Instead, his images are both startlingly contemporary and yet steeped in historical time, and we are left unable to resolve how the two are interwoven so seamlessly. Sinsel deftly makes us feel that, rather than dividing our attention between past and present, we have the uncanny sensation of inhabiting both timeframes at once.
Most recently, Sinsel has been making increasing use of found objects. One, entitled ‘Donation Box’, is both alarming and enticing, resembling seemingly nothing else in the world. Characteristically, it seemed to offer a completely strange and unclassifiable object to view – an initial guess might lead you to believe it to be a highly exotic fruit. The sensations it prompts are, equally, a range of unknown pleasures. After an initial intense curiosity, perhaps in anticipation of tasting the ‘fruit’, we feel a giddy rush of contradictory sensations when realising that it is, in fact, a buffalo’s empty scrotal sac. The implied equation between our olfactory and sexual appetites exemplifies Sinsel’s blend of the playful and brutal; or as he puts it, a mix of “the sensual and the sexual, the violent and the pleasant in equal measure.”
‘Untitled, 2004, oil on board. ã The artist; courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
Hamm: ‘What time is it?’
From ‘Endgame’, Samuel Beckett
Markus Vater’s new series of canvases, entitled ‘At The End of the World’, offer tragi-comic, stream-of-consciousness snapshots of what will happen when the apocalypse dawns. Vater possesses a protean appetite for committing the oldest sins in the newest kinds of ways, reinventing genres and painterly styles through a freewheeling imagination and unlikely comic inversions. Rather than adapting historical ways of picture-making however, Vater adapts the oldest, most ‘universal’ and ‘profound’ subject matter to his own ends. Working across every conceivable medium, Vater’s multi-faceted oeuvre is, like Martin Kippenberger’s, united only by the artist’s quixotic take on the world.
The series ‘At the End of the World’ currently numbers 35 canvases and is, as the artist notes, completely “open-ended – the piece is a list which can be continued”. Seen together as a suite of images, though, its effect upon us is cumulative, and might be described as symphonic. The “open-endedness” of the series gives Vater the scope to stage encounters with every conceivable worldview, myth, and belief system ranging from “biological, evolutionary, mathematical, Christian, Romantic, political to nonsense mythologies.” Every culture has its myth of a terminal point to existence, an apocalypse of some shape, whether seen as bang or whimper. Unsurprisingly, the subject has given rise to many of the most iconic images in the history of art, from Albrecht Durer’s ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ to William Blake’s ‘End of Days’, to John Martin’s visionary epics. Characteristically, Vater’s idiom – a blend of comicbook and children’s illustration – is comically mismatched to the grandeur of the subject. The artist has suggested that the events are seen as if through childrens’ eyes, and his intentionally awkward drawing style is at first disarming, then funny, then touchingly evocative of the child-narrators’ perspectives. Whilst being an apparently absurdly inappropriate style with which to realise visions of apocalyptic horror and cosmic oblivion, Vater is never merely ‘ironic’. Instead, his idiosyncratic draughtsmanship cranks up the emotional tenor rather than deflating it. If it is possible to approach the tragic sublime – a genre seldom, if ever, attempted in contemporary art – it can probably only be done obliquely. What the artist calls his “minimalist, poetic” aesthetic and unexpected wit mean that even the most absurd, hilarious scenarios are shot through with tragedy and pathos. Vater’s casual, wayward form of expression echoes Freud’s observation that “those things are comic which are not proper for an adult.”
Many of Vater’s scenarios in the series are brittle, one-act black comedies, resembling the ‘theatre of the absurd’ of Beckett and Ioneco. The end of the world is, of course, a no-place (in Latin of course, ‘utopia’). More accurately, it is a no-time, or year zero, where anything is possible. We might also think of it as the supreme instance of Mikhail Bahktin’s idea of the ‘carnivalesque’, where all the rules of ordinary life are suspended. One of Vater’s tableux directly echoes Bahktin’s burlesque inversions and role reversals: “At the end of the world there is a box with a red switch. If you press the switch all rich people become poor and all poor people become rich.” Such scenarios offer the artist the chance to create, as Howard Jacobson describes it, “a profane place where profane time holds sway, and we can encounter our other selves”. One has the accompanying text “at the end of the world we see the things how they really are and we die of boredom”, combining existential cruelty with the blackest humour, which as Jacobson notes, “takes place in inadequacy.” Another canvas pictures hell as complete isolation, whilst echoing the absurdity and pathos of growing old – with its inevitability, indignities, and irreversible sensory deterioration. “At the end of the world”, it says, “we all become invisible and deaf.”
‘Radical constructivism’ as a way of looking at the world appeals to Vater. The idea that we construct a picture of the world through ideas for ourselves, to which our sensory perceptions merely conform, underlies the series. The tenets of this philosophy have been outlined by Alexander Riegler: “as we can neither confirm nor reject an external reality, knowledge is circular but non-tautological – instead of using reality as point of reference, we can only examine the coherence and consistency of belief systems.” Or as Vater succinctly puts it, “I am not sure about the fabric of reality. In the end, paint is just in our heads.” The series is, at once, a philosophical exploration and an opportunity to work across every genre from the sublime to black comedy, tragedy to farce, grand guignol to slapstick.
But the end of the world is always the same and always different; always
over-familiar and utterly inconceivable. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes, in his
debut novel ‘Everything is Illuminated’:
From the series ‘At the End of the World’, 2004. Courtesy Vilma Gold, London.
As critic Charles Darwent has recently argued, “We live in interesting times, where novelty is history and history novel”. Echoing the premises of ‘Year Zero’, Darwent has identified a tendency in recent art where this is taken not only as a given, but as the starting point of artistic investigation. How is it possible to engage with historical idioms, ideas and imagery and still meet “the demands of the present”? (to adopt the art historian Charles Harrison’s phrase). To paraphrase Darwent, Wathen’s purpose is not “to stage a comeback for historical materials. Instead, the material IS history... This isn’t a back-to-basics message. Instead, it’s art that recognises a shift in history, a change of gear – and so takes as its business gear-changes, historical shifts.” Despite Wathen’s technical gifts and dexterity with the medium, it’s certainly not possible to read his paintings as either historicising and conservative on the one hand, or ironic and with quotation-marks on the other. How, then, to best encounter them or elucidate their peculiar effect upon us, when these are paintings as enigmatic and impassive as their sitters’ expressions?
Wathen’s own description of his working methods is elliptical, but revealing: “my practice centres around re-contextualising aspects of existing and found images that trigger a connection or affinity with my own history and childhood.” If these delicate portraits are a means to give shape to memories, or a way to make sense of them, how then do we access this private, personal language? It’s perhaps best to see Wathen’s paintings as objects which embody the way in which memory operates. Each image is a mnemonic for an experience we find eerily familiar, providing us with ‘ghost memories’. By creating an image which is part self-portrait, and part imaginary creation, Wathen creates a form of address which speaks in two voices simultaneously: the images persuade us both of their vivid contemporaneity and temporal otherness. The form of attention this requires might be described as a doubling of consciousness; and we might see this as a correlative for the way in which memory operates. Any act of recollection necessitates that we become estranged from our own timeframe to be able to temporarily inhabit another, purely imaginary one. To recall an experience is therefore to momentarily inhabit two places at once. The deftness and fluency of the artist’s technique persuade us of the paintings’ historical veracity; his deceptively simple idiom appears convincingly close to those of 17th and 18th century portraitists such as Arthur Devis. But the artist adapts freely, to modern ends: his compositions are tightly cropped so that figures fill the frame. Accordingly we feel to be on intimate terms with these strangers, rather than separated by class and time.
Wathen exploits the long-held assumption that portraiture can provide a
privileged access to ‘history’. The very idea of a National Portrait Gallery,
for example, requires ‘history’ to be told through a sequence of painted faces.
The existence of the NPG indicates we expect portraits not only to act as
documentary records or reveal ‘character’, but to be able to perform functions
up to and including condensing the most salient values of an entire epoch.
The power of Wathen’s images lies in their ability to both undermine and underline the shared assumptions above. His meticulous creamy brushwork seduces yet plain backgrounds fade smoothly away whilst offering no clear illusionistic space and figures cast no shadows. Moreover, the age of sitters is never made wholly distinct; like Dorian Gray they are of indeterminate age – seeming to be all ages at once. Children sport grey hair or a receding hairline; young bodies are clothed in adult attire; and older subjects conversely seem to possess youthful bodies above elderly faces. Accordingly the portraits seem to contain the narrative of a lifetime, rather than represent a particular moment, and this heightens their poignancy.
The artist limits his palette to a narrow range of warm greys, soft ochres, and creams; the sitters’ costumes are monochromatic, and unadorned or simplified to the point of near-abstraction. We read them as in-between early photographs and early portraits; whilst clearly not of our own time, the artist’s lightness of touch prevents them appearing as props in a costume-drama rather than as convincing clothing. His decision to primarily depict children and animals complicates the relationship between viewer and sitter: often, it seems animals are depicted with a more vivid and complicated consciousness than the sitters. Their closely nuanced expressions seem to reflect 21st century psychologies, characterised as Marina Warner argues by “the chaotic flux and mess of inner contradictions, not of static, achieved states of mind”. Together, the artist’s mixture of the strange, the awkward, and the obsolete allows him to inhabit quite unprecedented artistic territory. As he puts it, “psychological states are expressed through the resignation of a small creature, such as a rabbit or a perched kestrel, where the actual figure remains a mute and vulnerable prop... The relationship of animals and children offers an unchartered and unqualified psychological space to the viewer”.
‘Grace’, 2004, oil on canvas. Courtesy MW Projects, London