The Abject Object at Wimbledon Space, University of the Arts London
22 - 20 May 2016 curated by Geraint Evans
Participating artists: Sophie Birch, G L Brierley, Simon Callery, Mark Fairnington, Ana Genovés, John Greenwood, Paul Housley, Damien Meade, Donal Moloney
The idea for The Abject Object began in 2012 when I was asked to write an essay on the work of Damien Meade for Turps Banana painting magazine. The essay largely focused on his paintings of the heads that he models out of materials such as clay, wire and gaffer tape. I wrote this, for example, about Piri (2011):
“…a black featureless head sits on an indistinct surface. The object references both the form of the traditional sculptural portrait and the gimps mask, creating an unsettling and disturbing effect. The work’s composition is tightly cropped; however, reflections on the object’s smooth surface reveal the world beyond the painting’s edge, a world that remains tantalisingly elusive. The head’s sculptural modeling asserts its objectness and yet the proximity of the canvas edge, where the painted surface has been sanded and scuffed to reveal a number of layers reasserts the physicality of the stretcher, pulling the rug from beneath the work’s pictorial illusion. As viewers we oscillate between these two positions, both embracing the illusion and yet understanding the mechanics of its contrivance.”
I wondered about the status of images such as this or of ‘Talcum’ 2012 and their relationship to tradition – of still life, portraiture or classical sculpture. I also wondered about their thingness - how these arrangements of materials coalesce into discreet, knowable objects through the hand of the artist and the gaze of the subject.
Although we might empathise with them on some level, Damien’s heads remain very much part of an object world, familiar to us and yet separate and other. In his essay ‘Chardin and the text of Still Life’ (1989) Norman Bryson addresses this issue, writing: “Still life robs the world of human presence, and narrative value. Its illusionism implies an object world that has dispensed with human attention and in a sense makes human attention and the human subject obsolete. And its vision breaks the bond of life between the subject who looks and the world that is seen.”
The paintings that Damien includes in the Abject Object are rather more ambiguous. The unformed thingness of a dark waxy clay-like material transforms the canvas into a sort of tablet through the employment of an accomplished form of illusionism.
Bill Brown states that the word thing “designates the concrete yet ambiguous within the everyday” – “the amorphousness out of which objects are materialized by the (ap)perceiving subject” but also “as what is excessive in objects, as what exceeds their mere materialization …or …. utilization as objects - their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems.”
The object depicted in ‘Structure I’ (2014) shifts between the sculptural, the anatomical and the scatological. All sense of scale is lost whilst a stump-like limb rests upon the ground in a fascinatingly delicate and yet repulsive manner. In my essay on Meade, I referenced Eli Lotar’s photographs of the abattoir in La Villette, Paris, which accompanied George Bataille’s text Abattoir in DOCUMENTS (1929). These photographs were described by Neil Cox in the catalogue essay for the Hayward Gallery’s 2006 exhibition ‘Undercover Surrealism’ as “an avant-garde shock tactic” designed to expose the “paranoid-hygenic bourgeoisie to the abattoir, whose accursed nature Bataille interprets as a symptom of the sclerosis of polite society.”
Damien and I also talked about the poetic quality of these images - for example, the row of calf hooves propped against the abattoir wall that seem to be attempting to stand unsteadily once more. The severed limb becomes animate in the mind of the observer, it draws us closer and both fascinates and appalls us at once.
My employment of the word abject was meant to be broad, encompassing both its use in common parlance, meaning wretched, base, degraded even hopeless and, Julia Kristeva’s thesis in the essay Powers of Horror, where she descirbes the abject as the human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between the self and other. She writes: “Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck…. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them.”
Kristeva associates the abject with a rejection of the material manifestation of death, making a distinction between the knowledge and meaning of death with its actual traumatic material confrontation, which of course reminds us of our own inevitable demise.
She writes that “the corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.”
Indeed, death is ever present in still life painting and stalks the Abject Object – there are Paul Housley’s smoking skeletons and skulls that reference vanitas - and Donal Moloney’s shrines. Mark Fairnington’s skillfully rendered paintings of anatomical models from the Wellcome Collection stores elicit feelings of empathy and horror. We recognize our own visceral anatomy and the certainty and violence of death. Mark situates these paintings within the historical context of portrait and still life painting. The heads are mere representations but the observation and attention of their modeling bestows them with the wide-eyed humanity of the individual. Viewed as inanimate objects – artifacts of the museum or the medical college – we may experience a sense of wonder at the artisan’s craft or the unexpected juxtapositions of objects that have lost their original contexts or functionns.
Models are a recurrent theme - in the work of Meade, Fairnington and Moloney. In the catalogue for ‘Still Life: Ambiguous Practices’ Frances Woodley acknowledges that models play a large part in that show’s exhibiting artist’s practices, encompassing the found, made, staged – bricolage, Photoshop, collage and assemblage – as she writes, the still life model plays a crucial role in ambiguating reality, in making it strange.
Bryson writes about the extraordinary quality of attention invested (by artist and viewer alike) in the domestic and mundane objects of Juan Sánchez Cotán’s ‘Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber’, an attention that lies outside regular experience. He writes “Defamiliarisation confers on these things a dramatic objecthood, but the intensity of the perception at work makes for such a surplus of appearances that the image and its objects seem not quite of this world.”
So what to make of John Greenwood’s Fruites de Mere then, a painting that so obviously references the Spanish bodegón – “a grotesque assemblage” as Sarah Kent would have it, of strange fruit, seeds, crustacean - fleshy anatomical forms displayed in an alcove so familiar in the still life tradition but reminiscent of the sterile white tiled store of the butcher’s (or indeed fishmonger’s) shop. More allegorical than literal, informed by surrealist painters such as Dali, Yves Tanguy and Miro – both mesmerizingly opulent and repulsive.
Viewed as a series, G L Brierley’s paintings suggest a sort of cabinet of curiosities containing ambiguous objects that shift between decoration and formlessness, the anatomical, the botanical and the grotesque. There are references to the lavish compositions of 17th century Pronk still life whilst Brierley utilises a a range of painterly techniques, from delicate authorial marks to poured, dripped and wrinkled paint.
Within the exhibition, there are paintings that look like objects and objects that suggest the painterly and my selection of work has been purposefully broad. Ana Genovés makes sculptural forms that echo the props of social order - the objects through which we conduct and arrange our civil space. To paraphrase the artist, these conventions often default to a neat geometry to suggest an appearance of control; however, there are signs of entropy in the forms and surfaces of her work, suggesting a subsidence into disorder, into the unknown, or the unfathomable - the collective fear of the other.
Over a number of years, Simon Callery has aimed to remove all vestiges of the image from his canvases, allowing the experience of the material landscape to inform his paintings, which assert their objectness, their ragged materiality.
The everyday household objects in the video works of Sophie Birch are in a perpetual state of suspense awaiting their slow-motion collapse. Writing about still life’s relationship with illusionism, Bryson describes the ways in which objects within tromp l’oeil paintings often “present themselves as not awaiting human attention, or as abandoned by human attention” and there is a sense of this abandonment within Birch’s compositions. He continues: “divorced from use things revert to entropy or absurdity – suspended and waiting, disregarded.” I also feel that Frances’ description of the heaps of objects and pile of food in the Pronk still life paintings of van Beyeren or De Heem seems apposite here.
Within many of the works in the Abject Object, there is real craft and skill at play. Fairnington’s facility with materials and process suggests the possibility of animation in his anatomical specimens. The authorial application of paint in Meade’s work echoes the hand-fashioned clay that forms many of his heads. It is paint’s essential materiality that shapes our relationship with the objects within this show – its quality and appearance resonate with meaning and, at once, elicit both a sense of antipathy and empathy.