Mise en Abyme
Thursday May 16th 6.30-8.30pm
Friday May 17th – Saturday June 22nd 2013
Wednesday–Saturday 11am–6pm or by appointment
Points of Departure | Sue Hubbard
In the spring of 1945 the French artist Jean Dubuffet wrote of painting in his Notes for the Well-Lettered that: “The point of departure is the surface one is to bring alive… and the first stroke of colour or ink that one lays on it; the resulting effect, the resulting adventure. It is this stroke, the degree to which one enriches it and gives it direction, that shapes the work. A painting is not built like a house…but rather facing away from the end result; gropings, going backwards!...And, you, painter, look to your palettes and rags, strokes of colour, patches and lines, that’s where you’ll find the keys you’re looking for.”
The collapse of faith in the conventional motifs and forms of art that had been unable to prevent the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust left sceptical artists with few places to go by the middle of last century. Such was Dubuffet’s response to the failures and protocols of culture that had failed to prevent a European blood-bath that he turned towards the primitive and unschooled. Graffiti, the art of children and the insane were seen to speak with unmediated authenticity and stand in contrast to what was considered civilised in a world of post-war angst. Within the avant-garde the artist’s expressive concerns were central. The artist as shaman and hero became one of the central constructs of modernism.
But for the postmodernist painter such a position is no longer tenable. The artist as outsider and tragic hero is a script that has long been played out. Gavin Nolan’s current exhibition Mise en Abyme is permeated by a sense of nostalgia and irony. Nostalgia for the loss of the possibility of direct expression, and a self-reflexive irony, which acknowledges that for the contemporary painter an interest in the expressive quality of paint is seen as a retro cliché. With their nervy impasto and febrile mark making his paintings ask what now counts as authenticity in a world of surface and simulacra, when the death of painting has been debated ad nauseum? What role is still open to the contemporary painter?
By projecting himself into his artistic archetypes, with their borrowed signifiers such as Joseph Beuys’s hat or Jay Joplin’s glasses, these paintings act as mirrors, conduits between artist and viewer where Nolan is both subject and maker, audience and object. The unmasking of the unconscious process of creativity is emphasised in his works where the outer layers of the face have been peeled back to reveal the armature of skull beneath. Not only do these invoke ideas of mortality, as expressed within vanitas paintings, but they suggest the subterranean world of the id - one full of anxiety, narcissism and self-doubt - which lurks behind the public face of the artist. Two fists tattooed with the dual words PAIN and TING pugilistically punch through the picture surface to assault the viewer with the single word PAINTING. Both a challenge and a rallying cry, it is a provocative gesture. In Private View, the artist is depicted nude, apart from a black leather jacket. The mask-like face suggests the public persona that such an event requires, whilst the level of anxiety at being caught naked as the Emperor with no clothes, clings like a noxious smell to the canvas. This duality of artist as both vulnerable and exhibitionist is highlighted by the mythic feel of the painting and its expressive volatile brushwork.
So who are such paintings, where viewer and artist coalesce, for? The truth is that an artist largely sets about creating his own audience. In facing the canvas he chooses not only to face himself but to create an ethical and aesthetic dialogue that is the prerequisite of all interesting art. The relationship a viewer strikes up with a painting is about a decision to give an artist time, to engage and take him seriously. The author, Flint Schier, in his essay, Painting after Art? composed as a commentary on Richard Wollheim’s concept of What the Spectator Sees , argues that “what gives value to the wide assortment of artistic projects is that some community of artists in fact genuinely cared about them and tried to make others care too… to appreciate them we must step into the perspective of the artists who took them seriously…”
The role of the contemporary painter is to make work that is the focus of attention and see to it that the viewer’s experience of giving that attention is worthwhile. To this end a painting must pose questions in the mind of the viewer. In these energetic diaristic works Nolan re-affirms painting as a continuing quest: one that is both self-reflexive and universal.
Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, award-winning poet and novelist. Her latest novel, Girl in White, is published by Cinnamon Press and her new poetry collection The Forgetting and Remembering of Air by Salt publishing. This coincides with a collaborative exhibition with the artist Rachel Howard, Over the Rainbow at Elevenspitalfields.
|Gavin Nolan The Crash, 2013 Oil on board 122x92cm|