Originally published in (H)Art, March 2010.
Against a darkly-clouded twilight stoops an elderly tree. From one branch, hanging by a rope, a raven; skewered oddly by another a lightly bloodied fish. In the foreground a coterie of mythological creatures teem and jabber: a crimson-eyed goat, an electric blue skeleton, a long-haired red-skulled monkey, an eagle-headed warrior, an axe wielding goblin. At their head, a crazed, semi-clad figure puts a light to a cauldron. Smoke billows backwards, and a scorching medieval glow illuminates a richly yellow-robed figure, arms crossed under folds of fabric, head bowed and cowed.
The painting is ‘Fear Eats the Soul’ by London-based contemporary artist John Stark. It’s on show at Charlie Smith London as part of an exhibition entitled Demonology. Elsewhere in the gallery are weirdly anthropomorphic ceramic jugs, a kind of clockwork wellied devil, mysterious, dark, photographic images and strange symbolic collages.
Just down the road on the same night is the opening of Boo Saville’s latest solo show at Trolley Gallery. ‘Totem’ consists of two series of paintings examining death, and the way that different cultures respond to this most universal of everyday occurrences. Amongst the skulls and the odd heads and the mummified figures, the most affecting work – because the hardest to read – is entitled ‘Meme’. Made by applying household bleach to blackout canvas, this is an eerily blank work. Like perhaps the Turin Shroud, death is there, but you can’t know exactly where.
A few weeks previously, at the London Art Fair, I came across the works of Latvian/Russian contemporary artist Henrijs Preiss, exhibiting in the UK with Sesame Gallery. Behind a lush red curtain hang a host of paintings on board – in bold reds, blacks, gold and cream – that feature an instantly familiar vocabulary of esoteric symbolism. You recognise it immediately but cannot know quite from where. Pagan pentagrams, cabalistic diagrams, Byzantine icons: all overlap in layers of abstract composition. And yet the referential specificity has been removed, leaving these images empty and meaningless, and all the more powerful for it.
Death, paganism, mystery, ritual, the occult, the darkly weird: this is what is happening in London right now. Exhibitions at Vegas Gallery, Transition, Standpoint and Riflemaker have reinforced this dark undercurrent in the capital. The activities of the Last Tuesday Society – and their recent opening of Viktor Wynd Fine Art in Hackney – confirm it. Preiss notes that, even though he’s “been working on the same project for over ten years, it does seem to be gaining more attention today”. But why now? And why here?
In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, first published in 1995, American astrophysicist Carl Sagan writes:
“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic and national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”
Might this hold a clue? Certainly there’s a prejudice and worry afoot. Words like ‘terrorism’ or ‘recession’ are everywhere we look. “At times of scarcity,” Boo Saville explains, “we reach for comfort”. And comfort is often associated not with logic but with something more primitive or child-like.
It’s perhaps interesting here to look at artists like Nick Laessing, Kit Craig, Ryan Leigh, and – to a lesser extent – Keith Tyson, whose works all explore the boundaries between the arts and the sciences. Leigh’s work fuses the aesthetics of these two traditionally disparate disciplines – the use of graph paper a particularly neat motif here: “I like to use graph paper for a number of reasons,” Leigh explains: “firstly, it has an interesting aesthetic quality which interpenetrates all areas of the work reminiscent of the ‘aether’ in classical physics. Secondly, it has a reference to the scientific ‘result’. Thirdly, it creates tension between the seemingly un-ordered marks of drawing and the rigid framework of the graph grid.”
It is this tension between order and disorder that seems at the heart of today’s London, and thus a crucial element of much of the art coming out of it. But it’s not all dark misery and endless references to Freud’s unheimliche; certain artists around London at the moment can, thankfully, see the funny side. By its very nature, a symbol is about the potential for duality of meaning, and this is one of the fundamental elements of British humour. The double-entendre, the pun, even irony itself: all rely on the fact that a word or image can mean several different things according to context, intention, the attitude of the viewer etc.
In October 2009, for example, David Marron had a wonderful solo show at GV Art in Marylebone. Throughout the various downstairs gallery rooms twelve horrific, ochre, corpse-like figures loomed, lurched, hunched, stretched, grabbed and pointed at the unwary visitor. Each one of these life-size zombie-type creatures represented a different character, so there was The Mother – a multi-armed monstrosity carrying a baby in one hand – and The Arbiter – a wailing figure hunched in a cage. These are direct, raw and uncompromising works, shocking and powerful, and yet – to my surprise at the time – humour emerges. These works are actually quite hilarious.
My favourite figure – and the artist’s too, he said when I spoke to him – is The Senile. A baffled looking figure sporting a blue hospital coat points vacantly into the middle distance. The expression is as if he has just remembered something frightfully important, but in attempting to articulate this fact, has completely forgotten whatever it actually was. In his breast pocket sits a packet of forget-me-not seeds and out of his tartan granny shopper pokes the head of some weird mutant lizard. It’s made of varnished parma ham.
There’s a fine line between pathos and humour and Marron skips along it with evident glee. The same could be said for the vast swathes of weirdness that fill the recently opened Viktor Wynd Fine Art or the bizarre performance art of Marcus Coates. I interviewed Coates back in June 2009 ahead of his collaborative performance with experimental funk/metal collective Chrome Hoof, entitled A Ritual for Elephant and Castle. Not only did he stress the importance of seeing things in new and unusual ways – he took project managers on the local council on “imaginary journeys” for example – but also in having fun. “Everyone’s really up for this,” he’d said, “because it’s basically a party.”
And what a party it was! With Chrome Hoof taking to the stage all clad in silver as if all the baddies from Doctor Who had got together for a bit of a jam, and Coates himself tottering about sporting a real horse’s head, it was definitely a spectacle. Funny and ridiculous – yes, but ultimately it was also a strange and fantastically thrilling journey. One that meant something.
Interestingly, Marron and Coates present very different reasons for what is currently taking place in the London art world. For Coates, “it simply reflects what’s going on in society really. There’s a need to believe in something else, particularly now after the collapse of consumerism and capitalism. But people are reluctant to engage in things like religion or New Age self-help, so ritual can serve that purpose.”
Marron on the other hand says it’s “probably just another transient trend. People will always be drawn to look at the apparently strange whether some art oddity, some misshapen person or a traffic accident. People are compelled to look.”
As much as I agree with Marron here – and as much as I love his work – I don’t think one can dismiss the notion of the “transient trend”. That is what art criticism and art history are about, to some extent. Cubism, you could argue, was a transient trend. What I find interesting I think is the way that reference points are colliding – but not in the way that they did under post-modernism with an appreciation only for irony. Now a clash of different potential meanings creates something more, something seemingly bigger. I think this is the power of art, and something that Sagan misses. Not everything always has to be serious, rational, logical etc. Nor, indeed, can it be.
I think a Blakean relationship to the systemic is beginning to emerge, one that combine order with passion, sincerity with irony. In Blake’s epic Jerusalem, Los declares:
I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s;
I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.
Today, artists are constructing their own personal systems of meaning and belief. Symbolism is intensely personal, but of course rooted in belief systems of yore. This is unavoidable but also something worth celebrating. As Boo Saville puts it, “There is certainly a sense of helplessness in the futility of life but I think that actually that can be liberation. “As an artist I have constructed a belief system for myself, which enable me to deal with this futility.”
Henrij Preiss may be seen to exemplify these very processes: “My paintings represent a sense of order. What I do is remove the particular stories or narratives, and take the underlying framework, so that I end up with what you could call symbolic archetypes, both in particular motifs and in the geometrical structures. I then layer these into the paintings to create objects that address a form of universal geometry, or a basic symbolic language, which is common to all human visual systems.”
New orders emerge, rooted in those of the past, straddling science and psychology, Freud and Darwin – unique and personal, but accessible through the medium of the symbol. Can they answer all our questions? No, nor should they. “I believe in science and the possibility of what it offers,” Saville admits, “but I sometimes wonder, if I was about to die, would I say a prayer?”