Caution Slippery Surface by David Barrett
Catalogue essay for the solo exhibition 'The Sheer Innocence of a Curious Gaze'
at Newport Museum and Art Gallery 2012
For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life.
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’, 1891
At first glance, these recent artworks by Geraint Evans look like conventional figurative paintings: simple allegorical depictions of a synthetic sublime. They are like displaced Pre-Raphaelite tableaux or declawed Romantic landscapes. But keep looking at the compositions and something disconcerting becomes apparent; the various elements that make up the scenarios don’t entirely fit together. In the painting Grizzly, for example, is the little girl sitting outdoors with a vast panorama spreading out behind her? Or is she posing in front of a reproduction backdrop? The unvarying flatness of the painting style makes it impossible to tell. And in the log-flume painting Krakatoa, is that a giant mountain in the distance or a fake mountain up close? Again, the homogeneous painting technique embraces such confusions.
This spatial difficulty is enhanced in works such as An Aviary, where picture-in-picture effects upset the entire sense of illusory 3D space. Since the paintings depicted in the artist’s studio are treated in the same manner as the supposedly real studio space, and the dabs of paint here and there across the studio floor could equally be read as descriptive texture or abstract facture on the surface of the canvas, the viewer cannot be entirely sure of the status of each pictorial element. This unsettling of the picture plane is nowhere more apparent than in An Ornamental Hermit, where the crazy paving has no perspectival regression and sits like a geometric pattern just under the surface of the strange garden scene and effectively calls the entire composition into question.
But that is not all. Many of the characters inhabiting the scenes seem to be too stiffly posed; have they in fact been culled from holiday snapshots and collaged into the scenes, like pictorial tourists? This superimposed quality is partly due to the fact that the shadows lack any directionality, as if some digital processing that was intended to soften the cut-and-paste technique resulted in these unconvincing lighting effects. Ah, that familiar, deadening light: it is commonplace not only in the virtual world of video games and low-rent TV special effects but also real-world shopping centres, warehouses, superstores and trade fairs. In these new, all-encompassing habitats, arrays of lighting rigs produce insistent and unchanging conditions, no matter the time or season, no matter the Sun or atmosphere.
Almost all life on Earth depends upon the Sun, but the human species seems intent on constructing diffuse, airless environments as new homes for both itself and its replicas of selected fauna. We are terraforming our own planet, turning it from merely habitable to overtly hospitable. In a sense, modern populations find themselves experiencing a new frontier: a Tame West of unblinking commercial comfort, synthetic territories that are ambiently welcoming but subliminally hostile, stress-free like the zoo compounds that drive animals into repetitive patterns of self-destructive behaviour. We might well ask, when pondering these paintings and the mock-natural domains we have constructed for ourselves, what is the antonym of ‘sublime’?
As well as revealing the poverty of our constructed environments, these paintings also debase the natural world, which is now experienced as merely a broader version of the copies we encounter in shopping centres and documentaries. The structures of managed tourism – guides, vantage points, viewing platforms – provide a cultural frame for nature, ensuring that even wild vistas come across as scenes that we have somehow already seen. Nature is filtered through our encultured vision – sight is, after all, a neural rather than optical sense – ensuring that we witness it more as a super-IMAX experience than anything genuinely overawing. Evans uses the same cool painting technique to fold the constructed and natural worlds together, making it clear that, in our experience, both are equally the products of human activity.
While the works may initially appear to champion the mimesis of the Pre-Raphaelites (evident through the hyper detailing of individual pebbles, bricks and leaves in An Ornamental Hermit), they in fact owe more to the antimimesis of Oscar Wilde, for whom life imitated art rather than vice versa. These oppositions were expressed as spiritual nature versus ornamental nature, but today we could perhaps characterise our new duality as spiritual versus financial, and indeed the Victorian compulsion to catalogue the world through vast taxonomies has recently been matched by our contemporary impulse to digitise every aspect of the world so that contextual adverts can be sold against a new universe of information.
What is striking about these paintings is the fact that the oddness of the depicted scenes and narratives, with their repeated focus on synthetic landscapes and secondary experience, dovetails with and is reinforced by the painting technique itself. But why is this flat and simplified style so familiar? We recognise it as a cousin of the informational graphics that proliferate in our managerial societies, instructional signs in which every form is declarative rather than illusionary. In a sense, these paintings are odes to our declared planet where everything, even nature, presents itself to us in easily parsed, manageable chunks, and where contemporary landscapes are primarily interpreted as a litany of control signs: caution, slippery surface, fire exit, mind the step, men at work, keep to the path, keep off the grass, do not feed the animals, eye protection must be worn.
David Barrett is the associate editor of Art Monthly.