Wednesday, 24 March 2010

‘Demonology: The Art of Extreme?’ By Delphine Neimon

“Demonology : the study of demons, their natures, their forms and their behaviour, particularly with regards to humans.”

The word is ancient, descending from another age. It encapsulates a multitude of superstitions and beliefs; it has been so often misused, incorrectly associated with extremes, with changes in fashion… Using it as the title of an exhibition – what a risk! At best it might sound like media hype, at worst foolhardy… but just perhaps daring flare?

That’s the question I ask myself as I read the title on a London cultural events site. In the Renaissance too, King James the First used that word; his Daemonology imprinted itself on contemporary minds; it is even said that it inspired Shakespeare to write Macbeth. The study of demons and their hold over the world of the living nourishes English seventeenth century culture. It would seem that it still does. But how? Why does an art gallery in the heart of one of the most modern cities in the world choose to return to this ancient subject? And how can it hope to do it justice?

The best thing is to go and see for oneself. I find the director’s address, send him an email, to which he replies within ten minutes: we fix a date. I arrive at the appointed hour… and find myself in front of a pub instead of the gallery I was expecting: the art is exhibited in a space right over the bar. Bare walls well lit by a combination of big windows and spot lights. The director, Zavier Ellis, welcomes me at the foot of the stairs, shows me around, shows me each piece, and introduces me to each artist like members of a family. Ceramics, paintings, sculptures, the pieces explore the links between belief and reality through art. At least that’s what the press release says. A single question ties it all together: where does the devil reside today?

Derived from fairytales, the ceramics of Prue Piper are it seems inspired by traditional superstitions about elves, fairies and dryads. Looking at “Two Headed Vessel” it is Ariel or Puck that one sees hidden among leaves. Gentle, harmless demons are these. One finds this innocence again, twisted slightly in the painting “Demonology” by James Jessop; wherein he mixes all the Z-grade movie themes from Creature from the Black Lagoon to Godzilla via the vampire movies of the Hammer House of Horror, the whole lot in a frenzy of garish colours and Munch images. At this stage, one is still somewhere between the grotesque and the naïve.

Things become considerably tougher with Boy (George), a ceramic sculpture by Jonathan Baldock; an androgynous glass-eyed, grey face, with ears of wheat for hair… already alarming. But the ears are tied with a black ribbon stretching from the mouth like a string of imprecations; this is much more twisted, a destructive curse to destroy all fertility, all life, all prosperity. Pure black magic, of the same kind painted magnificently by Claire Pestaille or John Stark. The former is inspired by surrealist collages or Goya’s paintings to create a spell that reverberates with the double feminine absolutes of seducer and destroyer. The latter takes up again with the tortured world of Bosch and Brueghel. His painting Fear Eats the Soul entirely fills the dark room of the gallery with its maleficio. How can one avoid thinking of the witches in Macbeth?

The heat rises by another degree in the paintings of Alex Gene Morrisson. Everywhere in this artist’s work, oily blackness meets faded pastels. Black Bile (Shark Face) is perhaps the most striking: a faded rainbow background from which erupts a sort of black larva, its mouth wide with a cry of bitter rage. Its voracious mandibles render the whole business deeply unpleasant: suddenly it’s like being faced with a tyrant infant, monstrous and yet feeble. And one is totally helpless before this spectacle of pain at once inflicted and suffered, such as one also feels elsewhere in the works of Gögel.

If the latter puts one in mind of the dehumanised atmosphere of Otto Dix, the skeletons of Schleime and Shepherd immerse us, the former in the world of the Vanities and zombie films (it’s hard not to think of the creations of Tom Savini), and the latter in the colours and shapes of macabre Mexican paintings. As for Danny Treacy, it is not a human but a cow’s skull that he portrays in Fertile Ground No. 51. A reworked photogram, in which this symbol of death stands out from the dark shadow with nuances of blood red and candy pink. Eroticism, masochism…the wooden frame, the chain hanging the work, all evoke an inseparable mix of sexual pleasure and pain. The heart of Saint Valentine, a blood filled uterus, death nestled in the folds of fertility. Eros and death-wish mixed once again in a suffocating miasma.

Spotted with wax like clotted blood, this is the most upsetting work in the collection. Jasper Joffe’s The Cursed Box both resembles a clock and a letterbox… and a guillotine. Decked with warnings etched in the wood patina, it is pierced with bloody holes through which can be discerned short texts. A reference to the chain letter spam that infests our inboxes, bearing omens that one must send on and propagate or risk being cursed; ironically the artist announced his work with a childish and particularly squalid email. A lucid and unforgiving take on the scourge of the Internet? The computer as Pandora’s Box, flooding one’s consciousness with all human suffering, which must under no circumstances be opened?

No answer of course…but a thicket of questions, and that’s the real merit of these pieces and of the exhibition that gathers them together. The only thing for sure as one leaves this gallery is that, despite the scientific age, the diabolical exists yet. In the sixteenth century, demons helped to make sense of the incomprehensible, helping to deal with it if not actually to dispel it: the mentally deranged labelled “possessed”, women who were too liberal in their ways accused of witchcraft, natural scientists condemned as warlocks… a well known phenomenon. The problem is that it persists. Despite today’s technological advances, or perhaps because of them, demonology remains a deep seated need, a drug, and the ultimate means of warding off the violence of our times. One shivers before these pieces; their message is unequivocal: in the twenty first century, demonology chimes with violence, death, seduction, naivety and childhood. Nice view of the future, isn’t it?

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