04 March, 2010
by: Lauren Romano
Artist Gavin Nolan gives Lauren a crash-course in chess tactics, shares what it takes to be Hitler's stunt double and lets her have a sneaky peek at some of his latest paintings.
In the depths of Bow I enter the warehouse studio of figurative artist Gavin Nolan, with nothing but a Dictaphone and a chequered knowledge of chess. But I leave an hour or so later, decidedly better acquainted with the great game. Not only are the half-finished canvases of A King’s Gambit Accepted at my perusal, but I’m soon confidently throwing around snippets of chess terminology like a pro.
While it's no doubt obvious to most, given the title of Nolan’s forthcoming solo exhibition at Charlie Smith London, Nolan’s paintings of famous suicides are subtly interwoven with chess references. The series has been inspired by an eighteenth century chess-playing automaton known as The Turk: it's an odd amalgamation, but it works. The Turk, Gavin helpfully informs me, was an elaborate hoax, which concealed an internal chamber just large enough for a human chess player to hide inside and operate the machine.
Gavin’s small studio space is a hive of activity, and the work-in-progress portraits beam discordantly down: all sweeps of paint, highly expressive eyes, and kinetically charged corrosive swashes. These include Virginia Woolf, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Socrates, Joseph Goebbels (The Nazi propaganda minister who gassed his wife and children with cyanide - a “real charmer” Nolan pipes in), Adolf Hitler, Jesus Christ and, of course, The Turk, cast as a Napoleonic, stallion-riding victor.
“I made a painting last October which was a portrait of Robert Benjamin Haydon, a British painter who committed suicide,” Gavin explains. “He shot himself and missed any vital area, then cut his throat and that didn’t work, so he cut his throat again. It was a sort of romantic gesture but it was obviously a terrible failure. After making that portrait I was thinking along the lines of how a death affects the reading of a life.” This is where the chess references come in: “One of the simplest moves against a beginner in chess is the King's Gambit where you sacrifice a piece really early on. Then people will inevitably take the pawn, and it gives you an advantage even though you’re a piece down.”
The overwhelming element of sacrifice – a simultaneous sense of victory and defeat – guides this group of paintings, which see Nolan moving away from the self-portraiture of earlier works. “The thing with the self-portraits was that I was tending to make them into stereotypes, caricatures even. And I just got the impression that the audience couldn’t really connect because they didn’t really know any history behind the person.”
Despite branching out into photography, and tentatively foraging in film, Gavin isn’t about to give up his paintbrush any time soon: “The great thing about painting is that it allows you to jump through time – you can have lots of different things and different times happening on the same surface. That seems to make sense with these, as I can have the figures looking both alive and dead. I can’t think of any other medium that I can do that with.”
That’s not to say his painting isn’t void of hitches, and disasters seem to be a frequent occurrence in Nolan’s studio: “Basically anything I try and impose on the paintings is a disaster. Anything that happens beyond my control usually works.” Gleefully Nolan admits, “Just a few days ago, I nearly killed that large one over there – Christ. But I resurrected him. It’s happened quite a few times where I’ve killed paintings just before a show. But the way I work, it tends to be that I try and make things sit in a place where they’re half destroyed, where destruction is part of the work. So I deliberately put spanners in the works: I throw lots of things at the painting and let it bleed. And then I impose myself on top of that. That’s when it becomes cheesy!”
More laughs ensue when Gavin shares his reference aids with me, rummaged from an assorted pile of photographs. He shows me a picture of a women, head angled in a stern, serious kind of a way. “Believe it or not, this girl here is Hitler’s stunt double. She has no idea.” Poor girl. Gavin then goes on to show me the stunt doubles for Christ’s hair – a girl with cascading curly locks – and Christ’s beard – this time, thankfully, a man.
With not long to go until the opening, Nolan’s got his work cut out to finish these paintings, as well as the botanical studies of hemlock and opium which are to stand alongside. I ask him if he’s looking forward to the private view: “It’s terrifying – I’ll turn up at half past eight after a bit of Dutch courage. I’ll just spend all evening gauging peoples’ responses – looking at them from the corner of my eye for tells, like a poker player.” So a note to those who are going: the shifty looking, slightly sloshed figure in the corner, casting his beady eye over all – that’ll be Gavin.