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Tactile, untouchable.

A Fortnightly Review

Three extraordinary paintings.


THERE HAVE BEEN some strong art shows in London recently. Some have ended; some are still going. But three images simply cannot be erased from my mind.

The first of these is the image Flayer and Flayed by Jusepe de Ribera that was shown in Ribera: Art of Violence which was ably curated by Dr Xavier Bray,  who is now director of the Wallace Collection, and former Chief Curator at Dulwich. The show provided us with wonderful examples of Ribera’s skill as a draughtsman, a skill grounded in observation: a sheet of eyes, a sheet of ears, studies of open mouths. Later, such details will be exploited in finished works, the mouth of the faun Marsyas, for instance, open and groaning in agony as he is flayed by Apollo for daring to prefer Pan’s pipes over the God of music’s lyre (transformed into a cello in the picture). Apollo is beautiful and indifferent, the epitome of classical grace, as he goes about the business. From other drawings, we realise what a major influence Ribera was on Goya; and how his understanding of what I associate with the grotesque is shared with Jacques Callot, also shown in the exhibition, whose etching of a magnificent, almost muscular, tree hung with the emaciated corpses of those who have been hung from its sturdy limbs epitomises that notion of the richness of fecundity feeding on death and decay that is a central theme of the grotesque aesthetic.

Ribera’s painting made it clear to me that PTSD is experienced also by those who commit a violent act.

In the painting that affected me most, this grotesque spirit is very evident: the executioner standing with the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew over his left arm, and made tactile, in Berenson’s sense of “tactile values” by the way the knuckles of his hand dent the stripped off skin. But the painting has more to it. The flayer holds the knife in his right hand in such away that its sharp edge is aimed at himself. Again, the knuckles show how tensely he is gripping this instrument. Recently I have been asked to lecture on knife crime among young offenders, and as I looked at this painting by Ribera I realised that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not something simply experienced by the victims of violence. The painting made it clear to me that PTSD is experienced also by those who commit a violent act. It’s disturbing that the executioner seems to have at least the vestige of a halo around his head. But of course he does. His is a justified role, bestowed on him by the authorities. His eyes pierce the viewer. Everything in his visage is concentrated on associating his role with you, the righteous viewer. After all, if you are wandering through the Dulwich Picture Gallery, you are a member of the public he serves by the social act of being an employee of the state. He is intensely emphasising through his expression that you are on his side. A beam of light seems to bear down on him, as if from heaven, and yet it just misses him. One senses that the flayer’s suffering is worse, far worse than the saint’s, whose eyes are in repose, for he is already, blessedly, in heaven.

The second painting that deeply affected me was exhibited in the Coombs Contemporary show, Total Eclipse of the Heart: paintings about women – which, until May 2019, is shown at Watson Farley & Williams, 15 Appold Street, EC2A 2HB (contact the firm to view). This features a dozen or so artists, men as well as women. And it is curated by Dan Coombs. The work that got to me was Self Portrait as Harvey Weinstein by Cherry Pickles. Again, a striking feature of the painting is the expression. It’s sardonic, ironic, sans empathy. In a statement for a show a year ago, Smoking with the Boys, Pickles spoke of seeking the freedom that male artists such as Jackson Pollock had to sprawl in nonchalant style, the style of the bruiser; to behave badly, and in that show, she sprawled smoking, tipping back on her chair, her legs wide, wearing Y-Fronts, as she is interviewed by some big-deal NY critic. Pickles seeks the freedom to be a badass. One senses that she wants to be at liberty to face censure, such as that meted out to Weinstein (who made some pretty radical films, by the way, including Crossing Over, in which an immigration officer offers to secure a green card for an aspiring Aussie starlet, providing she sleeps with him). There is far more to the hounding of Harvey than meets the eye – but don’t get me started!

The painting is strong, simple and tough – values which she perhaps associates with some cliché of manliness…She wants the freedom to be a brute.

In the painting, Pickles faces the viewer directly, as it were, legs splayed, hands at her crotch, possible nursing a mobile, a voluminous sweater her only item of clothing. The painting is not simply a conceptual study in psychology. This upper garment is black, and it takes the viewer’s eyes away from the two focal points (her own eyes and her own crotch) into some unfathomable darkness. Tremendous energy informs the brushstrokes – the painting is strong, simple and tough – values which she perhaps associates with some cliché of manliness. But that is what she wants. She wants the freedom to be a brute. Another work in the show by her is entitled Self Portrait as Dylan Thomas. Why should she not be a drunkard and care no more than the devil if she is? Pickles is in revolt from feminist values being confused still with feminine virtues. Her notion of “me too” is not what she shares with some all-too-coy victim, but what she shares with some artworld or media tough.

But toughness and cruelty is not my theme, simply what stays in the mind after I’ve seen it. This includes the brilliant Chris Burden show at Gagosian Britannia Street, where balance was exploited and made tangible (are we back to Berenson?) by a one ton pick-up truck balanced by a weight weighing one ton, as well as an meteorite weighing as much as a Porsche.

However, the third two-dimensional work that I was struck by is in a retrospective of the work of the late Mary Maclean Not Bound by Something Solid — which was on at The Stephen Lawrence Gallery in Greenwich.

Maclean’s works are not paintings. They are silver gelatin photographs mounted on aluminium.

Actually, Maclean’s works are not paintings. They are silver gelatin photographs mounted on aluminium. However, they have a matiére — you approach them as if they were paintings — to experience their texture, or what seems to be their texture. There is an irony here. This is a photo of a blackboard, this one with the title Let’s say to be clear. It seems haunted by the ghost of erased gestures and thus becomes somehow gestural, and we move closer to examine it as we would the surface of a painting, while at the same time it works on us with the power of abstract expression, as in the late works of Rothko.

The art and the actual space it is in work together to create a space between reality and fiction…

However, in some ways it is disingenuous to isolate one work and speak of it out of the context of the entire show. Maclean often worked with the architecture and fittings of the space in which she was exhibiting, and this show, curated after her all-too-early death by her husband Phil Griffin with Andrea Stokes, absolutely adheres to that notion. Maclean’s images of the details of windows and window ledges, snatches of exterior views, corners, skirtings and architraves, interact with the grids in the gallery floor, and with its municipal and academic “feel” (located in the University of Greenwich). The art and the actual space it is in work together to create a space between reality and fiction, as in the pictures of windows and doors that would open onto notional other worlds in the murals of ancient Rome, instigating the concept of “the picture within the picture”. I am so glad to see the work of this artist celebrated here. As Helen Robertson explains in a text accompanying the show:

Through her finely wrought handling of the photographic medium everyday institutional and domestic architectural situations appear unfamiliar. Maclean repeatedly aligns the camera’s rectangular frame with architectural planes, fittings and fixtures cropping these to create spatial compositions that seem to occupy an indeterminate space; a space in which the image plane detaches the architecture depicted and the viewer from habitual perception’s stable ground. It is as if viewfinder and architectural frame conjoin in a choreographic process that undoes the stability of body and built environment. Maclean was interested in the experiential – how notions of inside and outside continuously fold into and out of each other; in this exhibition spatial ambiguities oscillate within and across the works folding the architecture of the exhibition space and the viewer into the work. Some of the photographs were printed directly onto aluminium sheet, fusing the photographic image with its support. Brush marks produced by the liquid emulsion used to sensitise the plates give the images an added effect of instability, as does their reflectivity, that draws shadow and light from the surrounding architecture into the image surface collapsing gallery space and image space into each other.

To my mind, Maclean is an artist whose significance will prove to out-shadow many more well-known artists of her day. This is work that can be compared to that of Mondrian or Morandi. There’s a deep poetry here, as time will tell. We live in a world where the wood is overwhelmed by trees, but we must have faith that in the long run, true quality will be recognised and prevail.

Anthony HowellAnthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).

Note: Minor revisions after publication to  correct editorial error.


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