The Sheer Innocence of a Curious Gaze by Damien Meade
Review of the solo show at Newport Museum and Art Gallery, Wales for Turps Banana #13 July 2013
A quaint Victorian Welsh port, it’s growth swelled during the 19th century by the passage it provided for the industrial surge of coal gorged from the deep of the valleys that stretch beyond. The surge dwindled, and its municipal character wears the scars of successive architectural re-imaginings. Down today’s high street, in-between the scattering of pound shops and glass-fronted hollows with To-Let signs, ubiquitous outlets offer retail solace.
Looming over one side of an austere 1960’s civic square is the brutalist brown colossus of a derelict high-rise car park, precariously held together by giant staples. On the other side, the glass and steel of a recent shopping arcade facelift, and next door to that, nestled on the third floor between the city museum and library, lies the Newport Art Gallery.
If you can forgive the TV doc camera-pan intro, the context for this exhibition of fourteen recent paintings by Geraint Evans was appropriate, if not poignant.
Expanding the psychological terrain that has unfolded in his work over the past 15 years, it conjures a world of suburban melancholy, of lives lived in an increasingly fabricated reality, of La-Z-Boy aspirationalism, where the comforts of modernity have reduced life to a flaccid numbness, and where nature and wilderness are a projection of fantasy and a portal to interior escape.
Our complex relationship with nature is central to these works, and the large painting An Ornamental Hermit (2007) seemed like a catalyst, as it was the oldest work in the show. In a manicured garden in a middle class housing estate, a family pose for a group portrait. On the left, a cravat-wearing father stands smugly, his bryl-creemed hair combed to a fine parting, his hands on his hips pinning open a sports jacket in a curiously Alan Partridge-like pose. On the right, his adoring wife looks on in loose Gap casuals, and their tank-topped teenage son, hair parted in genetic mimicry of his father, squats and grins next to a wholesome and contented family dog.
The focus of their contentment is the scrawny semi-naked feral presence at the centre of the scene. A bald male with a black grizzly full beard, he stands legs apart clutching a wooden staff, his nakedness masked by an oversized pampers-like fur loincloth. Behind them and lodged in a tree, a hermit’s domain has been fashioned out of a B&Q garden shed, it’s door a gaping mouth of darkness.
It references the 18th century British landscape gardening tradition, but more specifically, a curious cultural anomaly from that time - the fashion accessory of the ornamental garden hermit: an aged man in robe and long beard, who was employed to act out an ascetic existence, a life of abstinence and oneness with nature - and therefore with God - on behalf of their lord and master, and more importantly, to the marvel of guests.
That landscape gardening tradition – as exemplified by Capability Brown – was an extension of the period’s frenzied obsession with taste amongst the social elite. For Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, taste wasn't just about luxury and economics - it also had a theological basis. By demonstrating a heightened understanding of what was beautiful in God’s world, it might also imply a heightened sense of moral judgement. Implicit in Protestant theology was humanity’s separation from and control over nature… the perception of nature as God’s great creation, which He had entrusted to us to watch over and preserve. As a barometer of individual taste, the stately garden took on a new significance: if one could demonstrate a control over nature, that one had somehow pacified it and subjected it to order, it might also imply that one was in control of one’s own nature, of one’s moral character, and the irrational self. The landscape was commandeered as an external projection of the order of one’s own moral interior. Roaming through this clipped and groomed natural world, might the ornamental hermit be seen as physical manifestation of that irrational self – having been tamed to solemnity? It’s a fanciful notion. It was also an unfortunate means of accentuating the sense of social vertigo that stood between nobleman and savage, or even commoner.
The residual legacy of this very British notion of taste and the compulsion to demonstrate it at every turn, forged in the parlours of the 18th century, is a trauma that still permeates and conditions the middle classes today, and in this scene documenting the contemporary suburban reappearance of the garden hermit - part Thomas Gainsborough, part Little Britain, part Stig of the Dump - a desperate status anxiety surfaces in the absurd; a comical and grotesque signifier of excess.
Within painting, it's possible to view the British landscape tradition as product of that Protestant sensibility. On superficial level, it might be seen as a convenient means of documenting and celebrating the glory of God’s world (Constable painted like a vicar). But symbolically, it was also an attempt at containing the uncontainable and pacifying the unpacifiable.
Evans takes this pacification of nature to fantastical extremities in another large work, Krakatoa (2012). We stand on a raised platform peering over a steel railing, and stretching out from under us and into the distance is the vista of a giant water-coaster theme park ride that appears to snake through a pine forest and deep into an epic mountain wilderness of Himalayan proportions. From the highest snow-capped peak, a plume of volcanic ash is belched into the sky in climactic convulsions. But something’s not quite right here – that mountain makes an unlikely volcano. On closer inspection, at either side you glimpse a grey mundane industrial estate spread out behind the mountains on the horizon - in what seems to be the middle distance - and the whole scene collapses into a visual oxymoron, a Tardus-like spatial incongruity. It’s as if the great Kantian sublime – the vastness of nature as an experience beyond our limits of comprehension – has been harnessed and bridled, and put to work inside a gargantuan suburban pinball machine. It’s become leisure culture’s gimp.
The anxieties of suburban life are not uncommon in painting (see Evans’s contemporaries - George Shaw, Jake Clark). The 50’s dream was the utopian marriage of city and countryside, but the reality was just an awful compromise – an average middleness of underachievement and petty one-upmanship (yes, I grew up there). Utopia: the word literally means ‘no-place’ or ‘non-place’, and throughout the 70’s and 80’s, as the dream was killing itself softly, these ‘non-places’ provided the setting for numerous British TV sitcoms - The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976), Butterflies (1978), Ever
Decreasing Circles (1984) – and the humour was in the certainty of the narrative sweep, from hope to hopelessness and the inability to escape.
But the suburban psyche of Evans’s work is a western hybrid: a core British sensibility whose desire and imagination have been corrupted by the relentless assault of American pop culture. When he plays with the notion of landscape as a projection of fantasy, it’s often the fantasy of the epic American west, the frontier myth of freedom as propagated by Hollywood and Walt Disney, or it’s a warped trans-nationalism, an amalgamation of stereotypes as filtered through that American vision.
In A Souvenir (2012), on the grass verge of a public car park we encounter yet another of Evans’ specimens: a balding bearded male sat on a picnic chair with head bowed in utter dejection, indifferent to the glorious mountain range that rises behind. The tools of his trade surround him: a camera on a tripod, and a triumph of taxidermy – a brown grizzly bear standing perfectly upright, camply caressing a phallus-like tree stump, it’s head turned slightly in preparation for the perfect snap with an imaginary paying punter. Even when Evans’s protagonist is pictured at this very frontier of wilderness, the crushing claustrophobia prevails. Like suburbia was never a place, but rather a state of mind, and you can take the man out of it, but never it out of the man.
The castrated presence of this preposterous bear is typical of Evans. Within the narrative, it’s a tragic externalisation of the impotence and thwarted masculinity of the photographer. On another level, it’s a monument to our own arrogance, and it accentuates the extent to which we have forced nature into a conceptual abstraction, into a perverse fabrication.
In another work, an intrepid mountaineer, in multiple layers of North Face protection-against-the-elements, and loaded up mule-like with a hefty backpack, stands alert, leaning slightly back on one foot. It’s as if we’ve caught him at the very moment he comes face-to-face with his most breathtaking and daring of challenges. But the setting for this glimpse into the sublime, In the Mall (2010), once again inverts that moment of revelation into the pedestrian and mundane. The rock face before him is a contrived piece of retail park interior design, a synthetic cascade of painted fibreglass and boxed tree saplings, the whole scene sat on artificiality itself - a freshly polished vinyl floor, the kind of thing one encounters in suburban retail parks with names that actively conjure the wild: ‘Bluewater’, ‘Eden’, or ‘Lakeside’. His path to the summit of this capitalist nirvana is marked by the geometry of a brushed steel escalator that rises in a harsh diagonal through multiple tree stalks across the picture plane and into the above and beyond. But at a glance, the escalator doubles-up as a shaft of divine light bursting through the upper reaches of the scene and striking our hero full in the chest.
This deft compositional reference to directional light takes on double ironical significance when you consider the repeated negation of any unifying light source throughout Evans’s work. In the exhibition catalogue text, David Barrett writes of the deadening light of video games and shopping centres: “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”. He continues: “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”.
While standing in this expansive gallery surveying the installation, I slowly became aware of the incessant halogen buzz of the extravagant overhead aluminium lighting rig, and once it had my attention it seemed to grow louder by the minute. With Evans’s work wrapped around the gallery walls – an anthropological sprawl of our sanitised suburban fantasies of the natural world - this drone of electrons sounded like a hollow sonic inversion of the pulsing chorus of insects in the great outdoors.
The absence of directional light in his work also means that meagre shadows linger like patches of abject dampness around the feet of the protagonists, so that despite the fact that most paintings here are crowned by expanses of pale blue sky, the abiding impression is that these lives are lived out in perpetual grey, damp, overcast glibness.
The sense of artifice in these paintings is therefore at times suffocating, and the manner with which they get under your skin is facilitated by technique – within the skin of paint itself - which is applied with the flatness of the sign-painter. The tones, muted throughout, seem sampled from Ladybird books, and the human subjects have all the charm and charisma of participants from nanny-state health & safety manuals. One gets the impression that if they were to throw a rock in the air it would bounce off the sky with a dull thud, like an outtake from Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). But these works are conceptual constructs, and in this sense their success lies in the very idea of producing paintings that look this way. It’s this stiff-upper-lip negation of expression in the technique, un-empathic and brutally unforgiving, which somehow throws the real human crisis within the narrative into sharp contrast, with bathos and wry humour. Ultimately, the absence of expression becomes the expression, and the denial of empathy triggers the human response. What remains of real nature in these paintings is what is revealed to us about our own nature… our unquenchable desire, and our abject fear of the unknown.
Damien Meade 2013