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The Fantasy of Representation

July 30, 2015 by Mary

The Beers London gallery will be showing The Fantasy of Representation from July 31st until September 19th, 2015. The exhibition, curated by artist Andrew Salgado, explore figurative representation in painting featuring artists Hurvin Anderson, Francis Bacon, Gary Hume, Alexander Tinei, Dale Adcock, Scott Anderson, Sverre Bjertnaes, Alison Blickle, Daniel Crews-Chubb, Blake Daniels, Eckart Hahn, Aaron Holz, Adam Lee, Jenny Morgan, Justin Ogilvie, Lou Ros, Andrew Salgado, and Dominic Shepherd.

The-Fantasy-of-Representation-Exhibition

‘What counts is seeing, coupled with fantasy, with imagination...
- Josef Albers

It may seem paradoxical, perhaps, that an exhibition based on the wonderment of representational painting should lead with a quote by Josef Albers - one of the most regarded and unforgiving modernists of the 20th century. However Albers, as educator, theorist, stylist, and technician, has had some of the most profound effects on the world of contemporary painting, as any other leading artist. In some instances, his breakthroughs in colour-theory, and his insistence on the importance of the eye and the subsequent cognitive processes (as it relates to our understanding of art), can be read across discipline, media, or intent. These are not ideas beholden to abstraction, but ideas of abstraction that have bled into the other disciplines. They prove, above all, that fantasy lurks in even the most austere corners of representation. In some respects, as an artist myself, I often find myself returning to simpler ideas to find deeper complexities in my understanding (and execution) of art: ideas such as those laid out by Albers, to understand the challenges of a work, by, for instance, Francis Bacon, who is largely regarded as the greatest painter of the second half of the 20th century. The stark, uncharacteristic and often uncompromising combinations, favoured by Albers, can assist in our understanding of the unlikely combinations in some latter-career Bacons: where those unearthly pinks, lustrous ochres, blood-deep maroons, and army-greens truly come alive.

I'm inclined to discuss the paradox of the representational artist (I imagined Albers and Bacon in a boxing ring, though I'm sure nothing could be further from the truth), which introduces a disjuncture, to which the practice of the representational artist has been challenged, by those pure abstractionists. Today, it’s quite trendy to mutter the word ‘representational’ as some sort of pejorative term: that as representational artists, we are somehow less enlightened - clinging on to some banality of representation, as though aesthetically remiss or delayed in our artistic development, like we haven’t quite evolved into the higher realm of pure abstraction. Recently, during a studio visit I commented that for the first time in my own art practice, the ‘background’ held as much importance as the figure. My visitor asked, innocently enough: “then why do you still feel the need to paint the figure?” My response, simply enough: “Because I want to.”

Artist-Andrew-Salgado-The-Fantasy-of-Representation

Artist Andrew Salgado
Photo: Charles Moriarty

When looking at the contemporary abstractionists, the representational artists are expected to get it, (we do get  it -you would never believe some of the abstractionists whose work I frequently look to for inspiration) and frankly, my practice has become stronger as a result. But the contemporary abstractionists do not look to us: they are not expected to get our practice. Such is one of art’s bitter ironies. The truth is, in accepting abstraction into our vernacular, the representational painter has become ambidextrous. We speak two languages; we are visually acrobatic: like moles in fake moustaches, infiltrating enemy headquarters, sleeping with their women, drinking their gin, but reporting back to that world of representation – often with a wink and a nod. But with our embrasure of abstraction, we have welcomed fantasy. Who knows, perhaps it is our Achilles tendon that we retain a desire to locate, anchor, inform; that paroxysm where a brushmark becomes a reference.

Truthfully, the intention of this exhibition is to showcase the work of talented painters, both emerging and established, who, I believe, are exciting representatives of the contemporary state of representational painting. An artist like Dale Adcock, for instance, straddles the line between such severe, stark abstraction, and pure imaginative figuration, so that classifying him as either seems impossible. Sverre Bjertnes transcends the expectations of the figurative artist: both hyper-real and 'not-at-all-real', a stylistic schizophrenic. In discussion on the telephone with Scott Anderson’s Los Angeles representation, we both referred to him, very casually and confidently, as a representational painter, and personally, I love that duality, where his work – ostensibly completely abstract – is actually anchored in some dreamy, shape-shifting (sur)reality. I see a tree. I see eyes. I see a monster. It makes my mind work…Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock...

I'm reminded of a seminal and telling essay on Cézanne by the celebrated essayist Clement Greenberg ( “Cézanne: The Gateway to Painting.” The American Mercury. 1952)in which the critic credits the influential Modernist with separating the thing or (for you art-nerds out there)referent from its painted depiction to its essence, reduced to a colour, a feeling, a suggestion in planar space. Chuck Close writes something similar when he criticizes (or at least critiques) Andrew Wyeth's remarkable Christina's World (Chuck Close. “The Great Illusionist.” Financial Times. 2006.), for erroneously painting each blade of grass (I imagine him saying this with some long-held disdain for the banalities of grass), as opposed to painting the idea of the grass. The naked eye cannot distinguish between blades, and as such, Close considers the divorce from verisimilitude as tantamount. An interesting argument but Close is simultaneously a hyperrealist and a totally abstract painter (just look at his catalogue of works). A similar feat is made by Alexander Tinei, where superficial brushstrokes suggest a tattoo or a tribal mark, but perhaps appear from merely the artist’s whim to decorate, and though that has become such an ugly term in contemporary artspeak, I question much purely abstract art, which seems to have gone so far down the rabbit-hole that it has doubled back upon itself: entirely abstract art is often purely decorative, at times blank, (is the word pointless too accusatory?), often distancing or just too plainly hard to decipher. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. In fact, I love abstraction. I am often drawn more to purely abstract painting than I am to representational painting, but nobody likes to feel like the wool is being pulled over their eyes. In the best sense, it is evident that representational art is being pulled from its roots (just like grass!) and pushed into abstraction. I look at Justin Ogilvie’sPeasantpaintings and think: yes! Here a mark might be an eye, but on another level, it is only a mark, the essence of a thing, always abstract, always representational, always somewhere in between. And what a beautiful thought that is! I’m reminded of the Kate Bush song where she sings aboutThe Painter when she croons, “lines like these must be an architect’s dream”. (Kate Bush. “An Architect’s Dream.” Aerial. 2005.)

Above all, this exhibition is something of a celebration of painters: a series of representational painters' painters, who illustrate the infinitesimal possibilities of imagination, as introduced by representation; its bounds, and our desire (as artists and viewers alike), to transcend, to challenge and to subvert. And it is a vanity project, I guess, inasmuch as it allows me the opportunity, as an artist, to wear the mask of a curator, if only to momentarily present a group of artists from different eras, nations, styles, and movements, for no other reason than to celebrate their influence on (not only my own tiny practice, but) the state of representational painting today as a whole. Towards a new language of representation, where these lines are blurred, and what we are left with is not unlike a painting by Albers: a series of lines, colours, and delineations, only within the picture plane itself, to be deconstructed and reassembled as we please, limited only by the imagination of the viewer.’

Essay by Canadian artist and curator Andrew Salgado.

Gary Hume, ‘Two Roses’
Japanese woodblock print, signed and numbered, published by Other Criteria