The gallery calls it a “simultaneous solo exhibitions” connected to “the current themes (….) explored by the GTG 2018 – 2019 programme of approaching ways of looking” (Gallery handout). Like Humpty Dumpty I – you- GTG may give those words different meaning. One is that the gallery programme aims to present some distinct ways of looking. But – by who? The curator? The artist? The viewer? Is it not always the case? Seduced by the 20th C obsession with “la différence”, often that becomes the main value. However, these exhibits allow for sameness to enter.
Painting or drawing a person transmutes a sentient person into an inanimate object. Nevertheless, verism holds on to more of the “soul”. Nothing new about that. Look at Gentile Bellini’s self- portrait, how similar his way of looking at the live body is to that of Somerville above. I am not suggesting the debt of the younger to the older artist. Rather, a comparison of pose and modelling illustrates that the ways of looking do not depend on temporal context. Whereas, using vintage cotton pick sack as a ground, does, as do references to a Soviet gas mask and bag.
Bellini also added accessories in a portrait of another: In line with the trends in European portraiture of the time, Bellini depicted the sultan in resplendent detail, his three-quarter profile framed by an illusionistic archway.
Mehmet is also represented by the trappings of Islamic authority: His red caftan and luxurious fur mantle are accompanied by a headdress (a wrapped turban over a red taj) that indicates his rank and religious identity; a piece of jewel-encrusted Ottoman embroidery hangs down the front of the frame; and the three crowns of Constantinople, Iconium, and Trebizond flank him on each side.
Quite a few “samenesses” between the then and now.
I am not sure that the double meaning is intentional in the terms GTG prints in its handout: “approaching ways of looking” – from where? to whom? by what? Are ways of looking distinct from ways of seeing?
The verbs seeing, looking and watching, situate each activity in subtly different realms of attention and meaning. In life and in art. Yet – what I see I perceive as a process to make visible – even, particularly, the invisible, e.g. empathy, fear, insecurity. Human condition.
Drawing and painting, both have near hypnotising capacity to find correspondence between a fleeting perception and the unmovable marks on the ground. Between seeing and naming. Between observed and made up. I recall Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”
Therefore, thinking of the art, I tend to replace the words “ways of looking” with “ways of making visible”.
In the above drawing, the fatal experience of being “lost at sea” between escape and arrival arrests the retrieval of that experience in one moment. While the reality is inherently fugitive. As is generally the case with visual perception. It may imprint on memory if my eidetic memory is good. The rest is, as Balzac pointed out, indéfinissable.
On the image immediately above – a challenging 8-part painting by Travis Somerville that echoes Géricault’s Raft of Medusa, with its political charge. The Raft, 2016, demands to fragment perception into a stream of many partial views, resisting offering one all-embracing one.
It successfully transfers to me the impossibility of grasping it as a whole. Like any of Breughel’s “tableaux”. The event’s dynamic is not susceptible to one dominant view. This ragged composition mediates an experience of being inside a story. There is no sign of the order of Alberti’s disegno. Instead, the colours weep, accuse, make hope not to be swallowed by dark waves. The darkness of what it is they collectively make visible.
The choice of painting it in fragments removes the narrative from sliding into sentimental historical drama. Instead, it revives a mechanism of restraint akin to Zola’s “j’accuse”… and hits hard the central issue: the tragedy strikes and unfolds, strikes and unfolds … its duration unpredictable. Homeland Insecurity mirrors the experience as it would be lived, a part after a part.
Mediation of reality by subverting the convention by control and absurdity appears in a display of the five exhibits by Ian Cumberland in Gallery One.
The title A common fiction appears both ironic and wondrous. Is it a futile literalism that turns a portrait into a genre, à la Pieter Breughel the Elder? Just with one person, not as many as the 16th painter would do. Or is it turning a portrait into a still life?
The first “tableau” includes a carpet covering the floor, also painted on the panel with a fallen man. Suspended from a rough wooden support on the painting’s dorso, the body is seen from its back, moving its head slightly now and then, movement afforded by the virtue of lens-based media.
Higher up on the wall, two video screens run information about various health issues.
The All Consuming Selfie (2918) presents a tromp l’oeil of the carpet around the hyperrealist (photorealist) rendering of the body. The painting and its support are the mute, unmovable parts. The faith in the power of the painted image is immediately undermined by screens with words on the wall and projection of the pose of the man seen from the back. Is it a pleonasm? Is it needed because the trust in mute poetry is waining? Matching up the two modes of representation cannot escape the dominance of “la différance” in the perception of visual images and text.
Adrian Navarro (Boston, 1973. Living and working in London) pointed to a paradox inherent in painting practice.
“Man is an alienated being who thinks he is free. The same thing happens with painting, it is a free and expressive medium whose aim is the communication of a view of the world, where that freedom is not possible. This is the paradox I try to represent. “
Cumberland also explores the dichotomy between confinement and freedom inherent in painting and by focusing on a figure, extended to the human being.
To a certain extent, the installations are similar to still life. The presence of the human being does not violate the terms of still life, as formulated by 17th C Dutch paintings. Hypnotic ambivalence erases any chance of hebetude. Like Paul Cezanne, the painter is first true to the motif, but after that he plays with omens of impermanence. Spark -germinate-unravel. There are clues in brushtrokes and in attachments of real objects: flag, cage, wood, neon, carpet….
Quiet confrontations of representational accuracy and installed objects create less dissonance than the sudden “blind” gris-en-gris divided brushstrokes. Could be intentional or not. Make me think of decay.
Objects are there as if the painting needed them. As if without them it would be incomplete. Their “reality” results in estrangement of the painted part. The question arises – what kind of alienation is that?
Marxism defines alienation as hiatus between the worker and the product of work. That’s not the case here. Bertold Brecht established that estrangement enhances criticality and awareness.
That is applicable to these exhibits. The caged painting and the woman’s gesture align to indicate a court procedure. Only to be undermined by the domestic setting behind her. So this alienation is both similar and different from Brecht’s proposition.
Handwritten over the above painting is the cost of each item in GBP, e.g. material, the model, etc.
Listing the model is a significant marker, that the painter works in the European tradition – not the newer way of using photographs or video or cinema stills.
That leads me to conclude that this painter defends representational figurative painting by wishing it, letting it, win a competition with real objects. That is, what I sense to be foregrounded. Through exposing it to estrangement, alienation works like Shklovsky’s foregrounding or defamiliarisation.
In his 1917 text Art as Technique he distinguishes poetic language from ordinary language :
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” (Shklovsky 16)
Cumberland moves in the world of common reality, such as the animation of inanimate objects, but evolves defamiliarizing the viewer and provoking an uncanny feeling.
The slowing down of perception ( like the smear of the blind blue-grey of the pills onto the hand) injects energy into a physical system of paint to “originate” difference, change, value, motion, presence. Making painting strange (e.g. both by tromp l’oeil of the carpet and confrontation with real carpet) motivates comparison and recognition of “la différance”…
Images courtesy Simon Mills and Golden Thread Gallery.