Saved from Drowning in the Sea of Postmodernism ; in an Age When Anything Can Be Called Art, It Is Refreshing to Find Three Artists Revelling in Traditional Values of Landscape, Portrait and Still Life, of Drawing, Painting and Observation
Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)
I AM occasionally tempted to adopt the Victorian writer's direct form of address, "Dear Reader", used when he wished to make a particular point or steer the bewildered through a paradox, and today I shall succumb.
Dear Reader, do not, I beg you, turn to another page because I employ the term Post-Modern. You have, no doubt, closed your minds to Post-Modernism and all its tiresome conflicts and confusions, and I, long since utterly perplexed, have damned it as a slippery pinhead on which foolish angels dance. I write of it now only because, in responding to a letter from a student bitterly complaining that his teachers have failed to recognise "the absurdity of Post-Modernism and the ludicrous position in which it puts them as supposed academics", I have begun to wonder when Post- Modernism began and whether it is possible to reach a simple definition that you and I might understand.
First let us dispense with capital letters and the hyphen, for in recent years a democratic change that suits the movement's Leftwing politics has reduced it to postmodernism. But is it even a movement? It is certainly not solely an art movement, for it embraces music, literature and philosophy, and in all these fields seems to have two unifying purposes; the first of these is the damnation of elitism as it might be expressed in technical skill or an ancestral aesthetic tradition; the second, entirely political, is the damnation and destruction of the very capitalism that, in the case of all the visual arts, has invested the wealth of Croesus in them and made the artists millionaires.
Ever since Duchamp, with his urinal-cum-fountain of 1917, challenged the common sense and tolerance of a public still uncertain of its aesthetic response to Post-Impressionism, artists have provoked us with affronts and we are now long accustomed to finding in art galleries material that on the street would be removed as rubbish, the spurious aggrandisement of much that is, like the human waste, obscenity and pornography it often is, repellent.
As Warhol put it, art has become whatever an artist "can get away with".
Was Warhol a postmodernist? For an answer you must turn to the acolytes of such postmodern philosophers as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Barthes and Adorno (how my brain shuts down at the recital of their names), for it is they who hold the whip hand here. None is an artist, a critic in any informed sense, or a historian, yet anyone who reads the current turbid jabberwocky of art recognises that its writers constantly invoke these authorities, weaving an inter-textual tapestry of quotations that to the sceptic are the fraudulent and often contradictory witterings of pseudoacademics who construct with language an exclusive elitism of their own. We, the outsiders, are not meant to understand, but merely to stand in uncomprehending awe of such intelligences.
Was Joseph Beuys postmodern?
Was Duchamp modern, pre-postmodern, proto-postmodern, or just post-modern before his time? The more enquiring one is with the visual art of the later 20th century, the more indeterminable the terms modern and postmodern become; we easily limit, define and comprehend Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and a dozen other movements, but once the distinctions between art and other forms of intellectual sustenance are blurred in the pan-cultural soup of postmodernism, nothing means anything precise, everything is individually interpretable by anybody, and the language of this anybody or group of anybodies becomes an art form in itself. Under postmodernism the rise of theory has been triumphant, and theory has been accorded such privilege that interpretation by non-artists now has absolute supremacy over the physical and occasionally aesthetic business of creating works of art. Some years ago, to keep us all in line, Nicholas Serota created a new post at the Tate - a Curator of Interpretation.
Post-modernism is anti-elitist in discounting skill and connoisseurship, and pro-elitist in allowing only its own protagonists to tell us, in language we cannot understand, what bad art means; and as on any art, a professional postmodernist can impose a concept: bad art, thoroughly incompetent and even disgusting art, proliferates; all art and all artists are equal, and the quality perceived in art resides only in the complexity and obscurity of the exegesis it inspires in theorists and the curators who are their instruments.
Postmodernism has no place in football.
Where, then, since postmodernism lies at the very heart of the dictatorial art-funding and promoting institutions of this country - Tate Modern and its planets, the Arts and British Councils, the art schools in which ancestral skills are never taught - can we see the outsider artists, artists who still work within the long post- Renaissance traditions?
By this I mean artists who, however fumblingly, still look at landscape and the human body, who still see virtue in still life and portraiture, who still care about the observation of a subject that depends on drawing, who still, in the representation of that subject, enjoy the sensual activity of manipulating paint with brush and palette knife. By chance, three painters in whose work these oldfashioned elements are overwhelmingly evident, have concurrent exhibitions at London dealers within spitting distance of each other.
Maggi Hambling, at the Marlborough Gallery, offers exhilarating seascapes so generous in handling that one can almost hear the crash of waves on shingle, feel the spray and sense the drag of undertow. We are on the beach with her and, like Leonardo with his whirlpools, she and we focus hard on detail, on a particular wave as it approaches, rears and throws its weight at us, and through Hambling's eyes we see what we thought to be invisible. She has succeeded where Leonardo failed, and succeeded as a vigorous painter rather than a scrupulous draughtsman; she wields the material of paint in such ways as to transmute it into energetic water, spray and spume without for a moment losing its identity as paint. The relentless sea the perfect subject for her, these canvases are the high point of a lifetime's labour.
Portraiture suits her, and she it, less well. She is her own best subject and, occasionally, as with a beggar and his dog, she finds a touching and pathetic note, but for the most part, large or small, her portraits are caricatural likenesses emerging from muddy convolutions, curls and whirls of paint.
The mannerism works well enough in monochrome drawings, but in paint I suspect that were she to submit, anonymously, a canvas to the National Portrait Gallery's Portrait Award, it would not pass even the first stage of selection.
Across the road, at the Albemarle Gallery, Richard Harrison is something of Hambling's kindred spirit in his paintings, often on a heroic scale, of apocalyptic horsemen, nudes and landscapes. All who have watched him over the past decade and more have seen the evolution and perfection of a landscape theme as fit for the creation of the world as for a Gotterdammerung, his powerful handling of paint as suited to a planet in flux as Hambling's is to the forces of wild North Sea. His horsemen, too, have the air of Earth's last day about them, the imagination darkly mediaeval in its convincing terribilita, invoking the then-expected terminal calamities of the first millennium to conjure the nuclear conflagrations that may yet put an end to us.
In his female nudes Harrison shares with Andrew Gadd, around the corner at Agnew's, what often seems to me a flaw in this subject - the supremacy of the painter's own erotic fancies. Harrison's women have big breasts and substantial buttocks, Gadd's woman (she is an innovation in his work) has a long, flat-bellied torso, even longer legs and, for a creature so generalised in form, too specifically hirsute a mons veneris. Wondering why I found the image so offensive in spite of lovely background passages worthy of William Nicholson, I turned for comparison to Courbet's notorious Origin of the World, infinitely more specific yet, to my eyes, among the most tender and beautiful of female nudes; and the answer lies in Gadd's failing to observe his broomstick model and denying her proportion, form, volume and true sensuality. Painters should not rely on their own fetishes to rouse our interest; Harrison should borrow Gadd's model, and Gadd Harrison's; both should learn detachment, and both could learn from Courbet.
I have watched Gadd since his days as a student at the Royal Academy in the early 1990s. He then seemed greatly gifted in an old- fashioned, English way, a belated heir to Sickert, Nicholson and Orpen, bloody-minded enough to make headway against tide of the Serota Tendency. I once wrote of him as "potentially a very considerable painter", and that still my view, but for a decade he drifted, symbolism in one picture, political sympathy in another, with vague and unconvincing references Goya and Surrealism, occasionally descending to a disconcerting level incompetence. Yet in this, as in previous exhibitions, there are paintings that utterly contradict this gloomy view.
The Labelmakers, a frozen moment in an Indian sweatshop, is old- fashioned masterpiece of clarity and staging, and in An Unfortunate Incident it is with exquisite judgment that he extends the tension thinly peopled composition over canvas 15 feet long.
The introductory essay in Gadd's catalogue ends with "Each spectator will read into the paintings what sees with his own vision ..." Is this, wonder, an appeal for a postmodernist interpretation? Now there's thought: to justify for Hambling, Harrison and Gadd the prestige, support, subsidies and prices paid for Ofili, Craig- Martin and Kippenberger whose retrospective exhibition Tate Modern opens within a week), need only the casuistry of a professional postmodernist philosopher proving that they, too, are postmodern the core. It could, I'm sure, be done.
Richard Harrison is at the Albemarle Gallery, 49 Albemarle Street, W1 (020 7499 1616) until 11 February. Maggi Hambling is at the Marlborough Gallery, 6 Albemarle Street, W1 (020 7629 5161) until 25 February. Andrew Gadd: The Labelmakers is at Agnew's, 43 Old Bond Street, W1 (020 7290 9250) until February.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Saved from Drowning in the Sea of Postmodernism ; in an Age When Anything Can Be Called Art, It Is Refreshing to Find Three Artists Revelling in Traditional Values of Landscape, Portrait and Still Life, of Drawing, Painting and Observation. Contributors: Sewell, Brian - Author. Newspaper title: The Evening Standard (London, England). Publication date: February 3, 2006. Page number: 34. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.