Alan Stanners’ paintings reveal an investment in the legacies of surrealism, while retaining an astute questioning of what it means to revisit such legacies from present perspectives. With a mature clarity of approach, this interrogation maintains a self-aware position while embedding itself within the paintings themselves, objects already shot-through with an understanding of their history.
Masks lift off to reveal hollow, shadowy absences, disembodied, stretched-out faces reminiscent of David Lynch’s Eraserhead . Two blackbirds peck at each other. These cliches work as ciphers for the inverted norm, the ‘other’, a surrealist intention. Anthropomorphised fingers slink off from the corner of a painting like sexualised female legs—the familiar view of an object is transformed to picturing of desirous projection. This is the long-neutralised language of a once avant-
garde project. As such, these deadened placeholders are couched in gauche swathes of expressionist mark-making or jaundiced colour, often held in place by shallow landscapes or floating in nondescript space, as though from imaginative projection.
However, rather than adopting the familiar stance of mocking pastiche, Stanners’ paintings develop a complex enquiry of what it means to restage a historical problem with the present. His grammar is the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ of this process.
‘Representation Anxiety’, 2008, is a skit on the politics of representation within painting, but also an illustration of the devaluation of its terms. An archetypal female subject crouches in front of the picture plane for both artist and viewer. Her face appears to have been cleaved by the artist’s bloodied palette knife, or at least is left in a mess of sloppy, painterly form: she is either being depicted or hollowed out. The figure of existential angst in Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ has simply become an integer of a failed relationship between artist, subject and viewer.
‘Painting Posing as an Animal Imagined by Kafka’, 2008, suggests a similar de-investment. Here, a geometric form sprouts insect legs: painting is portrayed as itself desperately trying to invoke the monstrous. The medium is embodied, searching for the pose of an imagination external to it. Through this anthropomorphism of painting we become aware of it as a relative term, and perhaps as an historical site. This embodiment of ‘painting as historically formed site’ might hope to reveal historical processes as carried within the medium.
Certainly Stanners seems to be developing a ‘performance of medium’: a complicating role in his restaging of a Surrealist ‘making strange’ where the site of painting begins to be posited as formative.
This might be drawn out in the paintings ‘Skin and Bones (after Guston)’, 2008, and ‘Microscope Atom’, 2007. In both, an appeal to visceral horror is conjured up: the abjection of fragmented meat, a hint of the impossibility of seeing our own bodies skinned but only used as a structural device.
‘Skin and Bones (after Guston)’ morphs Guston’s multivalent symbol of malevolence, the ‘hood,’ with the background, a mound with just one cavernous eye socket. Seemingly splurging out in front of it is a flat mess of partly familiar painterly marks, at once expressionistic vernacular and, via the title, vaguely suggestive of offal or raw human remains. The language and cliche of the mechanics of painting interjects into the space of the uncanny or the monstrous. Or alternatively, is thrown out of the way, as obfuscation.
‘Microscope Atom’, in darkly humourous tone, sketches out a similar territory. An agglomeration of cartoon skull, leg bone and other bodily detritus forms a tableau inside a dark circle. The superstitious truism that too much scrutiny reveals alienation and horror is re-invented as an allegory of painting’s inherent barrier to transparency.
This throwing back of the language of a medium in the face of the viewer might be dadaistic in tendency: a symbolic action against the embodiment of historic conditions within the present. Or this might be the inhabiting of those conditions of the present, of the apparatus of that embodiment of history as it is found within the medium of painting. In either case the monstrous character of surrealist estrangement is more likely to be found in the de-centered, inter-subjective condition of painting than via direct confrontation with its motifs and symbols.
Stanners’ new paintings reveal a transition to a more abstract appearance and points of reference. Painting on to glass paint palettes, these works are made up of the layering of gestural splattered marks, the paint itself being brought to the fore.
These works seem to imply an impossibility calamitously trapped within a discourse. ‘Greenhouse Airplane Trap’, 2008, pictures a disturbance within the centre of the picture plane, which feels far too close to the viewer. As the title suggests, something absolutely ridiculously outside is held as internal.
In these confrontations with the limits and language of painting, Stanners’ emerging practice is developing intriguing lines of enquiry.
Darren Rhymes is a writer based in Glasgow