29 January–23 February 2008, Transmission Gallery, Glasgow
Curated by former Transmission committee member and Glasgow-based artist Michael Hill Johnston, Live Undead brings together the work of ten painters from across Europe and America. Based around the theme of portraiture, it is a labour of love for Johnston, who has culled choice pieces from the vaults of Glasgow Museums and Scottish National Galleries, as well as from international and private collections.
This format is an unusual variation on Transmission’s commitment to showcase contemporary Scottish art in a broader context. Here, the exhibition includes historic artists. Walter Sickert, David Bomberg and André Derain make up the ‘undead’ contingent, their work resurrected beside pieces by George Condo, Armen Eloyan, Alex Katz, and Dana Shutz as well as two Scottish painters, Alexander Guy and Marianne Greated.
Curiously, Johnston has succeeded in achieving an aura of timelessness in spite of the wide timespan represented—the earliest work is dated 1929, the latest, 2007. And surprisingly, the paintings by Sickert, Bomberg and Derain do not only not clash with the newer works, but are fresh enough to hold their own. For their part, the contemporaries possess enough gravitas to sustain their reputations admirably in such illustrious company.
Moreover, there’s a clear interrelation of mood, theme and form among all the works, inviting the question of whether a vein of 1930s modernism is still being explored by contemporary painters. Or perhaps artists such as Eloyan and Shutz tap into a particular strain of idiosyncrasy that was ahead of its time.
Either way, in the demotic environs of Transmission, even the historic canvases are stripped of their quasi-religious aura, allowing the viewer to engage closely with painting as a living process.
In all of these works a certain wildness of invention and execution is combined with study and discipline. Differing approaches are taken to the spaces created when an image is reduced to its basic components of blocked-in tone and colour, whether those spaces dissolve into marks of varying tempo, weight and size, or become clean, flat, glowing areas.
These are portraits utterly devoid of sentimentality, replacing glib humanism with the almost uncanny aspect of melancholia implied by the show’s title—though there’s not a shroud or zombie in sight. Often flirting on the edge of the grotesque, the emotion evoked by all these works is of a decidedly angular variety.
Though comprised of only 10 paintings, this is an exhibition of great individual richness and complexity. The scabrous collision of genres in George Condo’s ‘Nude in Purple Chair’, 2007, is representative of Johnston’s challenging and cerebral concept of painting as contemporary and historical endeavour—the sleazy eroticism of a voluptuous female, nude in stockings, merges into a sort of debased caricature with a mouse-like masked head. The work is rendered doubly striking by the expansive backdrop of electric blue which frames the figure and by the delicate light-bulb hanging nonchalantly in the sitter’s dangling fingers—like the cartoon trope of an idea.
Laurence Figgis is an artist based in Glasgow