24 May–1 August, 2009, IBID PROJECTS/Hoxton Square, London
Showing in IBID’s three-floor semi-derelict offsite space, Christopher Orr’s exhibition of 14 diminutive paintings in oil (all 2008/2009) marks a turning point in the London-based Scottish artist’s career.
Known previously for creating painterly precise landscapes in which figures acted out sublimely overwhelmed tableaux, Orr embraces a more abstract style of brushwork here, whilst frequently retaining figurative aspects and his particular palette of greenish hues and white light. The resulting nod to expressionism is one that those following the new generation of painters emerging over the last ten years will be familiar with. Katy Moran being a prime, if perhaps fashionable, example. For Orr, however, this style evolution (the show’s curators are at laudable pains to demonstrate it is evolution and not revolution) seems to be about a newfound confidence and not trends.
The ground and first floors present the most figurative of recent work; whilst they have lost the past staged theatricity of subject matter, a sense of emotional relationship and causal action is retained in, for example, ‘Young Brother’, ‘Long Stride’ and the perceivable historical dress of the subjects. Orr’s confidence can be found within the broad, recognisable, brush strokes and the ability to fill a canvas with the mere lightest of touches. At times too there is demonstrable braveness in not having to fill the picture. In, for example, ‘The Long Stride’, in which a woman figures in the pose of a formal portrait, much of the brown surface paper is left sparse of paint.
Upstairs, Orr’s work returns to a familiar and career-long preoccupation with the study of nature. Having previously used images from an archive of National Geographic magazines in older works, here Orr uses images derived from a 1950s flower-arranging manual as subject matter. On the final floor he admits his undeniable admiration for old masters by painting what apparently are, and certainly look like, small abstracted details from much larger historic paintings.
This abstraction is a force to be reckoned with. His evolution, though gradual, is no less brutal when put in direct comparison to earlier work. Gone are the Caspar David Friedrich-style landscapes or the Vilhelm Hammershoi inspired washedout interiors. Gone is the bright unnatural use of colour and the play with perspective. This brutality of change seems to be key to these new works. In undermining our preconceptions as to what his own work should look like, Orr drags us away from the familiarity of paint, and the ostensibly traditional subject matter. Shielded by the perceived ‘nicety’ of oil paint, Orr seems to mock our assumed close relationship with nature and history, whilst never reducing the medium itself to irony. Behind the attractive canvas lies the savage truth that humanity has become dislocated from both past and nature. Mirroring biblical and historic warnings of apocalyptical devastation found within much of the 18th century European sublime, the title of one work, in which a female figure turns away from us, seems to find Orr saying that our modern mindset is careering towards a psychological Armageddon: ‘Time We Left This World Today’.
Oliver Basciano is a writer based in London