Magazine article The Spectator

A Sense of the Absurd

Magazine article The Spectator

A Sense of the Absurd

Article excerpt

Patrick Caulfield

(Hayward Gallery, till 11 April)

'Painting was always dead,' Willem de Kooning once remarked, `but I never let it bother me.' The English painter Patrick Caulfield might well say the same. So, too, might young painters today; so might Cezanne and Velazquez. It's never been easy to come up with a new, living way to see, as distinct from the art of the dead past. But it's still possible, using nothing but brushes and paint, as is triumphantly shown by Caulfield's retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.

Caulfield started off, in the early Sixties, from a point of ultimate ironic self-awareness. That was the fate of his generation, and the fate of subsequent generations, too. The artists of the Sixties came after Picasso, after Matisse, after Abstraction. They knew about all that; they were also surrounded by a blizzard of commercial and mechanical imagery - advertisements, magazines, postcards, illustrated books - just as we are today. In those circumstances, making a handmade image of the world, using technology unchanged since the days of Giorgione, can seem not a little absurd.

Caulfield built his sense of that absurdity into what he did. At one level, his paintings are a series of elaborate jokes about the conventions of painting, Abstraction included. In `Stained Glass Window', for example, from 1967, the centre of the picture consists of a geometric grid like a Mondrian or an early Ellsworth Kelly. But this is popped into an architectural frame of ecclesiastical gothic, and so, automatically, light shines through the coloured grid, and a place appears.

The thick black outlines and bright colours give some early Caulfields the look of pages from Tintin. But he was never a real Pop artist, because he never borrowed commercial imagery - he got the idea for the flat bright colours and thick lines from some crudely reproduced postcards he bought of frescoes from Knossos. Caulfield looks a little like Herge partly because he was trying to do something similar - make an image that was simple and decorative - and partly because he wanted the dead-pan, tongue-incheek effect of lowly illustration (as did Magritte, a painter Caulfield much admires).

As he went on, he complicated the game with more dead-panness, and placed his tongue even deeper in his cheek. From the Seventies, there are often areas in his pictures - the casserole on the table in `Dining/Kitchen/Living', or the view of the Chateau de Chinon in `After Lunch' which brilliantly mimic the effect of a certain, lurid, kitschy kind of photograph (the sort you find on the cookery page of a cheap women's magazine, say).

Indeed, his imitation is so extraordinary that it is only when you get very close closer than the attendants at the Hayward are happy for you to get - that it becomes plain you are looking at paint, rather than a glued-on photograph. But beside these gaudily hyper-real objects there are others which exist only as flat areas of colour, or schematic black outlines.

Caulfield's most elaborately visual jape is `Unfinished Painting', which is not unfinished at all, but offers a range of effects from bare canvas, through diagrammatic outline, to a table setting with a photographically, nauseatingly, accurate slice of quiche (he loves to paint things like quiche and carriage lamps, invisible in the eyes of good taste). There are all manner of ways of depicting the world, Caulfield seems to be saying, and all of them have been employed many times before. …

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