It's nothing special by Tom Morton
Catalogue essay for the solo exhibition at Centro de Arte de Salamanca, Spain 2003
1. On Failure
Aah, sing your song about the sad imitations that got it so wrong: It’s like a later ‘Tom and Jerry’ when the two of them could talk, like the Stones since the eighties, like the last days of Southfork. Like Planet of the Apes on TV, the second side of ‘Til the Band Comes in’, like an own-brand box of cornflakes: he’s going to let you down my friend.
Pulp, Bad Cover version (2001)
In Geraint Evans’ ‘Where Happiness Happens’ (2000) a painter sits in his studio, his face framed by a bad haircut, lolling across his collar like a limp spaniel’s ears. He clutches a mug of tea. He is taking a break, trying (perhaps) to work out where his work is going. The grey studio walls sag with his efforts. A blue eye stares unblinkingly out of a rusted vortex, half Alain Miller, half wimpy Wyndham Lewis. Above it, there’s a wobbly-lined Mark Rothko rip-off, and to the side there’s a self-portrait painted in the style of Chris Ofili, as banal as pre-Eminem white-boy Hip Hop. On the windowsill, among the French beer bottles, the fairy liquid and the pots of paint, is a postcard of Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991). Perhaps the shark’s there to provide inspiration or to shake the artist out of some deadening torpor. Whatever the reason, it’s not the only reproduction in his studio. There’s also Gary Hume’s ‘Tony Blackburn’ (1994), a Jean Michel Basquiat, David Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash’ (1967), an Alex Katz and (tellingly) a Rothko and an Ofili. If – as Oscar Wilde wrote in the ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (1898) – all men kill the thing they love, the artist has murdered his heroes using only his own, unremarkable, anti-talent.
In his book ‘High Art Life: British Art in the 1990’s’ (1999), Julian Stallbrass writes of an art that looks like art, but is not quite art. It is a useful idea: works that perform the right tricks, speak the right tongue yet are, in some difficult-to-put-your-finger-on-it way, not bone fide. But whereas Stallbrass uses the concept to probe Britart’s cultural politics, in Evans’ painting “not quite art” is something a little more personal. Writing about ‘Where Happiness Happens’ in the Guardian, Adrian Searle observed – in a passage that perfectly captured the failings and flailings of the post-YBA British art world – that the tea-supping painter has been:
Checking out the current fashion for ironic low-rent taste, hence his own painting of wild horses running through a river somewhere in the Rockies. But none of this will do him any good, however many openings he goes to, or even if he gets into a group show or two, or tidies things up a bit for the local open studio week. Maybe he could get a part-time teaching job if he hangs around for long enough. It’s all very dismal. You can almost hear time frittering away, along with the painter’s confidence. He’s going through the motions, the insidious death throes of a creativity that he never really had, though everyone said he was the best at school.
Look at ‘Where Happiness Happens’ closely and even the architecture of the artist’s studio - even its turpentine containers , its stray paint splats, its non-art stuff – seems to mock his efforts. Occupying almost half of Evans’ painting, the towering windows remind me of a Sol LeWitt or Jan Dibbets’ ‘Daylight/ Flashlight/ Outside Light/ Inside Light’ (1971), while the pigment spattered floor resembles an off-the-cuff Jackson Pollock. On the workbench, the brownish bottle of paint water and the pot of PVA glue seem to conspire against the artist – Duchampian ready-mades muttering among themselves, exchanging bad, bad reviews. It’s as though the gods of Modernism have manifested themselves in the odds-and-ends of a humble Hackney studio, weighing it down with their history, their high-cultural mass. In a sense, the artist is dealing with what artists deal with everyday: a world that seems to contain no new ideas, no uncharted territory to claim as one’s own. ‘Where Happiness Happens’ is about those moments when art seems not particularly special, just another thing – like gardening, like a game of tennis, like unblocking a blocked sink – to do to stave the long dark teatime of the soul. The problem (and the paradox of Evans’ painting, which replays the longhaired artist’s anxieties but also knows, deep down, that it is itself ‘proper’ art) is that we want art to be extraordinary, want it to transcend, despite the personal costs. If not, it’s nothing but a hobby, and hobbies – as we know – are about blandly accepting that life is meagre, about shuffling, flat-footed towards death.
In martin Amis’ novel ‘The Information’ (1995) the narrator Richard Tull – his literary ambitions a sour presence in his gut – works part time at a vanity publishers. There, he edits half-witted titles that tilt hopelessly at posterity:
the biographies of pet goldfish and prize gherkins, the thousand page treatises that supposedly whipped the carpet out from under Freud and Marx and Einstein, the revisionist histories of disbanded regiments and twilit trade-union planets, and all the other screams for help. (Amis 1995: 46)
What Tull fails to understand is that the writers he edits are writing for reasons that have nothing to do with literary merit; that they feel no need to square up to Joyce, or Nabokov, or Saul Bellow at his best. They write books that nobody else will write, because these books are the stories of their lives, and their lives are unexceptional. If they have a creative impulse to make a mark, a tiny impress upon a universe that they know will forget them. The same is true, I guess, of ‘Sunday Painters’, hobbyists that pick up a brush in their leisure hours. We see six of these part-timers in Evans’ ‘Twitchers’ (2000), sitting in front of their easels or else wandering about a shrubbery with their canvases in their hands, waiting for them to dry in the windless suburban air. Despite the singular lack of wildlife, each of them has produced a picture of a bird in the style of the illustrator Archibald Thornburn’s classic book ‘British Birds’ (1915). (This influence is, I think, important, as is the group’s stylistic consistency, as tightly policed as that of the Impressionists or the Nabis). They look ever so slightly gay – an impression confirmed by the bulging crotch and bad, porn star haircut of the guy on the far right of the canvas – and it’s easy to suspect that, after night falls, they use this copse for more than just plein air painting. Evans depicts the gravel in the foreground piece by piece, with all the vaulting ambition of the amateur who wants to represent everything he sees, as if the visual fades and blurs found in art from, say, Rubens onwards never entered our common optical consciousness.
‘Twitchers’ turns on tensions – between Thornburn’s traditionalism and the avant garde absurdity of painting, in the open air, an absent natural motif; between the machismo of all-male groups and their homoerotic undertow; between sympathy (“at least they’re painting right?”) and snobbery (“trust these suburban no-marks to paint pictures of bloody birds”). The title of the work simultaneously evokes an avian name, the nosy twitching of net curtains and the muted throes of a less-than-thrilling orgasm. It gets us thinking about the Abstract Expressionists, with their flights from reality, their media-fuelled infamy and their spurts of spermy paint. Here, an episode from the history of American Modernism is reprised, half a century too late, in a boring British suburb, with tightly painted sparrows replacing gestural globs of pigment. Practising their hobby, these ‘Sunday Painters’ seem happy enough. They don’t agonise over what art is, or was, or what it might be. But Evans does, and that’s what makes his paintings special.
A figure that looks a lot like the painter from ‘Where Happiness Happens’ appears in ‘Art Store’ (2000). Here, he leans over a railing in a London art warehouse, ignoring the works – one is perhaps a Picasso, another perhaps a Peter Doig – that peek out of the wide, wooden bays. It’s possible that he’s employed here (a lot of artists work as art handlers, either as a spur to productivity or as an act of self-evisceration), that he spends his week idly contemplating the day that his own paintings will sit in these stores, awaiting a one-man show, or delivery to a curator, a collector or some far flung biennale. With its utilitarian construction, the warehouse is similar to the stone built shack in Evans’ ‘Distant Drums’ (2000). We could be in Wales or Wichita – it’s impossible to tell – but it’s clear that the shack’s inhabitant is an isolationist, a sort of one-man Michigan Militia. He sits in front of his homestead dressed in militaristic green, a hunting cap framing his smiling, bearded face. It looks like he’s having a yard sale, although the only thing for sale is his paintings, and I suspect that they’d only be bought by somebody who shares his strange and savage taste. The canvases depict a pith helmeted soldier firing a pistol into a rampaging Zulu’s chest, antique military aircraft and Lord Kitchener, the British general who sent millions of young men to their deaths at Paschendale and the Somme. Who makes art like this? Who makes work this out of step with the left-leaning contemporary art world, without even the snap, crackle and pop of irony to excuse its unpalatable politics? Guys like this I guess; guys who’ve never been to art college, or visited MoMA, or downed wine at a private view. In the background, mountains loom like refugees from a Casper David Friedrich canvas. Evans dangles the lazy truism of 19th Century Romanticism = 20th Century National Socialism before our eyes, but these peaks are too modest to inspire jingoistic dreams, and we’re left with the feeling that the isolationist painter thinks his subject matter just looks, you know, kinda cool. Peering at his sparse exhibition, we wonder whether to approach it as art critics or anthropologists, to think about it in the same light as ‘proper’ painting, or to dismiss it as folk art, and make the same mistake as the imperious – not to mention imperial – people in his canvases. Evans points out that artistic worth is contingent on politics, and that ‘difference’ is only good when it’s the right kind of difference (the wrong sort, of course, can get you into hot water). This isn’t so much about the absurdity of art world worthiness as about the impossibility of taking any work of art on its own terms: when we approach art we tend to trip up on things, from out background to the blisters on our gallery-worn feet.
In Evans’ ‘It Was Nothing Personal’ (2000), three men are pictured in a modernist house. Two of them are engaged, it seems, in an argument, the third is lost in ennui. The hairy carpet is twinned with a Michael Craig-Martin canvas, featuring some handcuffs, a locker and a metronome, each depicted in the artist’s deadpan style. Craig-Martin’s paintings are known for their repeated motifs and this feeds into our reading of Evans’ figures. They resemble the group of painters in ‘Twitchers’, although here their numbers have been halved, following a philosophical split or some foul, nameless tragedy. Thought about in these terms, the title ‘It Was Nothing Personal’ brings dark thoughts to mind about the fate of the three missing painters. Have they been murdered by their former fellows (now no longer hobbyists but fresh converts to the Late Modernist cause), only to have the last laugh when the murderers fall out over Craig-Martin’s B&Q conceptualism? Have they been buried beneath the patio (a popular trope in British soap operas)? In a sense, these are non-questions. Evans’ paintings do not have a master narrative. Rather they pile improbable motifs upon improbable motifs, suggesting
multiple meanings. ‘It Was Nothing Personal’, with its severe white walls, its frou frou carpet and its triumvirate of camp moustaches, seems to answer the artist Jim Isermann’s question: what’s the faggiest thing I can do with minimalism?, although it also speaks of misunderstanding, misappropriation and the way that art sometimes fails when it’s rubbed up against life. These are things that the artist in ‘Where Happiness Happens’ knows only too well: start to believe in painting and – like a lover placed on a pedestal – it’s likely to disappoint.
2. On Suburbia
Suburbia, as Miranda Sawyer writes in ‘Park and Ride’ (1999) gives most people what they want most of the time. That repeated ‘most’ is important. It speaks of compromise (and what else are the suburbs but a compromise between the city and the countryside?), of dreams dulled by the dripping of drip-dry shirts. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the ‘non-spaces’ of suburbia are a favourite setting for British TV sitcoms – think of Tony Hancock’s Cheam, a place where hope segues, effortlessly into despair in the space of half an hour, or the bleak suburbs of ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ (1984) or Carla Lane’s ‘Butterflies’ (1978). In the popular imagination, melancholy hangs over out-of-town developments like a mist. You can still see through it – to the barbecue, to the company car lowing in the driveway – but it seeps into your very soul.
Looking at Evans’ ‘Frisbee’ (1999), one could almost be in an episode of ‘Terry and June’ (1979), the British sit-com that portrayed the suburbs as a sort of proxy fallout shelter, a place to escape the booms and blasts of the wider world. To the right of the painting, a middle-aged woman pedals a mains-powered exercise bike in a spotless sitting room, her hair is enclosed in a huge hairdryer. Plugged into her machinery, she is, it seems to me, the transatlantic cousin of the joggers Jean Baudrillard describes in ‘America’ (1986):
Decidedly, joggers are the true Latter Day Saints and the protagonists of an easy-does-it Apocalypse. Nothing evokes the end of the world more then a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his Walkman, cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of his energy, indifferent even to catastrophes since he expects destruction to come only as the fruit of his own efforts, from exhausting the energy of a body that in his own eyes has become useless. Primitives, when in despair, would commit suicide by swimming out to sea until they could swim no longer. The jogger commits suicide by running down the beach. His eyes are wild, saliva drips from his mouth. Do not stop him. He will either hit you or simply carry on dancing around in front of you like a man possessed. (Baudrillard 1987:57)
The difference, of course, is while Baudrillard’s American runs at full pelt, Evans’ hausfrau pedals at a leisurely, almost slothful rate. This is the speed of the British suburbs – not so much a headlong lunge towards apocalypse as a measured expiration; in synch with the slow death of fantasies, of desires, of the stuff that makes life worth living. To the left of the painting , a man (probably the woman’s husband – she looks a little too boring to be having an affair) sits on the sofa in his grey slacks, watching a TV that, were it to exist, would be perched on the viewer’s right shoulder. Like the woman, he is caught up in machinery, a suburban cyborg unaware that he’s made a major evolutionary leap. Neither the man nor the woman seem aware of each other’s presence, or if they are they’re no more interested in each other than in the furniture. (Even the painting’s title, ‘Frisbee’, is a jokey reference to a companionship that’s just not there). Writing in his ‘Das Kapital’ (1867) Karl Marx imagined a table that stands on its head and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas. Here, the armchairs and cabinets seem more like amoebas than sentient beings – in the suburbs, it seems, even commodity fetishism, the birth of the bourgeoisie, has had its day.
‘Frisbee’s’ inhabitants appear closely related to the people described by the British band Blur in their song ‘End of the Century’ (1995), a hymn to out-of-town alienation that includes the following words:
And we all say
Don’t want to be alone
We wear the same clothes
Because we feel the same
And kiss with dry lips
When we say goodnight
End of century…It’s nothing special
Blur’s song is part of the pre-millenial trend for pastoralism in 1990’s culture that explored the psychogeography of Britain’s cities and (especially) suburbs.
The beginning of this trend was, arguably Martin Amis’ novel ‘London Fields’ (1989), and – via the writing of Irvine Welsh and Magnus Mills, the music of Suede, Pulp and Blur, the art of Keith Coventry, Sarah Lucas and Rut Blees Luxemburg – it reached a forked road with the publication of J G Ballard’s ‘Cocaine Nights’ (2000), a futuristic novel in which the members of a transplanted suburban community attempt to cope with a life of untrammelled leisure, and George Shaw’s nostalgic paintings of Tile Hill, the down at heel housing estate where the artist grew up. Trying to position Geraint Evans’ paintings of the suburbs within this trend is difficult. They are Ballardian, sure, but they are also Shawian, pointing to both the future and the past. Take ‘Whistler’ (1998), for example, in which a small child pedals a tricycle across a suburban hallway that’s half modish IKEA furnishings, half fusty 1970s tat. Unaccountably, the boy has the brutal features of a gorilla. Has a domestic experiment in genetic engineering taken place, or is the boy’s appearance, as the critic Duncan MacLaren has suggested in ‘Contemporary Visual Arts’, the product of the artist’s recollection of a ‘Planet of the Apes’ mask which used to be on sale in a shop close to where he lived as a boy in Swansea? Both possibilities are implied by the painting, and it is this ambiguity that makes Evans’ work sing. Perhaps it is appropriate that the canvas is called ‘Whistler’. After all, as the artist James McNeill Whistler commented in his ‘Ten o’clock Lecture’ (1885): The Master stands in no relation to the moment in which he occurs – a monument to isolation – hinting at sadness – having no part in the progress of his fellow man. With his estranged, multi-temporal paintings, Evans seems to fit Whistler’s ‘Master’ mould with semi-ironic ease.
In the British imagination, the suburbs have always been a place of greater safety. This, I guess, is what makes the images produced by Evans that play on the illustrations in health and safety pamphlets so disturbing. In ‘Neighbours’ (1996), a woman sits in a bath, clutching an electric bar fire. Besides her, a neighbour prepares to toss in a toaster should her suicide bid fail. At first, the scene seems strangely anaesthetic, but the more I look at it the more painful it becomes. ‘Greedy Boy’ (1996) is even worse. We see a kid with a bowl cut beside a medicine cabinet, a bilious look on his face. He seems to have ingested half of the pills and potions in the cabinet, and his jocular father (wearing too-tight shorts) is telling him not to do it again. The scene’s innocence is muddied by the preposterous number of medicines (who needs that many, save for a hypochondriac, a drug addict or a poisoner?) and its nasty sexual charge. It reminds me, in a way, of Eric Fischl’s queasy studies of kinky suburban kids, although Evans’ palette of primaries is arguably even more nauseating than Fischl’s greys, greens and mortified flesh tones. What separates Evans from Fischl (and from Fischl’s film-maker counterpart, David Lynch) is these works aren’t so much to do with suburbia as with the tricky business of painting. Evans’ images are remarkably similar to the health and safety pamphlets they reference, but he only needs to make a few formal adjustments (a hand on a hip here, an uneasy smile there) to tilt the whole genre into horror. It is this, I think that interests him here – the borders of meaning and power the painter has to make them bend and buckle.
3. On Mountains
Mountains often feature in Evans’ works, in prints hung on suburban walls or fringing a campsite’s far horizon. ‘Slayer’ (2000) reveals a little of what they might mean for the artist. Here, a pole-toting heavy metaller has just reached the top of a steep scree. Behind him, there’s a verdant valley and a range of snow-capped peaks. Despite his rubbish climbing gear – some shorts, some green school socks and a ‘Megadeath’ t-shirt – he seems determined to stand atop a distant summit. (It’s easy to imaging him proclaiming the words of Sir Edmund Hilary, that he wants to climb his cut-price Everest because it’s there!) We know this long-haired looser won’t make it, but he’s an endearing failure, not anti-heroic but praiseworthy precisely because of his bonkers self belief. If there seems something odd about the landscape, it’s because it reflects (like the topography of German Romanticism) its inhabitant’s internal struggle. Tellingly, the pebbles beneath the climber’s feet are swiped from a patio catalogue, while the distant mountain range has all the hyper-real splendour of a National Geographic shoot or an alpine Ed Ruscha painting.
If mountaineering is the epitome of pointlessness (you can, after all, touch the sky at sea level) what, then, of climbing mountains in the nude? In ‘German Nudist Holiday’ (2000), six guys with identical pricks enjoy a peaked-filled panorama. Weirdly, they make me think of the men in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), returning empty-handed from their wintry foraging. Bruegel’s hunters are hungry and despondent, but the nudists have no such worries. Their bulging knapsacks promise to keep them well fed – freeing them to take pleasure in each other’s company and the nip of the mountain air on their puckered scrotal sacks. Perhaps ‘German Nudist Holiday’ is, in a sly way, about human progress, or about the stupid things we do once we’ve taken care of our immediate material needs. Perhaps its tongue in cheek attempt to revive Bruegel-type genre painting, or perhaps it’s about whether a cheap gag (they’re nude! they’re German! ha ha ha!) is still funny when someone has spent hours painting it onto an almost metre-square canvas. The last reading, for me, is the most compelling. Why bother finding out whether the joke wears thin or not? Because, like climbing Everest, like painting a Rothko rip-off it’s something to do.
Maybe the oddest image in Evans’ oeuvre is ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ (1999), in which a bubble-permed cavemen shakes hands with Jesus on the shores of Galilee. They smile as though someone were taking their picture – a tourist from Jupiter or a Newsweek photojournalist beamed back in time. The possible interpretations are mind-boggling, but whichever one I pick (there is, of course, no right answer), I can’t help thinking that it’s the most modest creation scene I’ve seen. This modesty, it seems to me, is at the heart of Evans’ art. He makes human works on a human scale that probe specific human problems: failure, lack of affect and the fact that art, sometimes, isn’t quite enough. The last of these is an uncomfortable subject for an artist, but then again it’s a subject that all artists, at some point, should address. In the final analysis, Evans’ art presents us with a choice: between the suburbs and the mountains, between torpor and aiming pointlessly for the top. Neither is perfect, but I suspect that most people – even the artist in ‘Where Happiness Happens’ – would rather hear the wind whistling round their privates then the hairdryer’s deathly hum.
Tom Morton 2003