Selected in collaboration with renowned British art critic and poet Edward Lucie-Smith Contemporary British Art contains no trace of anything usually associated with British Art from the last couple of decades. There are no installations, no videos, no found objects, nothing floating in tanks of formaldehyde à la Damien Hirst, nothing teasingly conceptual. Instead we have a small but very eclectic selection of figurative art, including portraiture, narrative and landscape and photography. Many of those represented belong to the Stuckist Movement, founded by Charles Thomson and Billy Childish in 1999, as a reaction against the all-conquering ethos of Post-Modernism, which the Stuckists believe has resulted in a narrow, fragmented, isolated, materialistic academia backed by financial power and underwritten by critical subservience rather than an open, free, unhindered, exploratory art of integrity.
Rather than artistic anarchists the Stuckists and their sympathizers are generally interested in art which embodies or is driven by a search for values- very much the driving force of early Modernism. The founder of Stuckism, Charles Thomson, perhaps best known for his satirical portrait of the former chairman of Britain’s Tate Gallery, Sir Nicholas Serota, has three of his startlingly coloured acrylic paintings in the exhibition. Man In Top Hat 12 for all its superficial playfulness has a disturbing quality, with its top-hatted subject staring out from a conflagration of screeching colours like some tribal African fetish. Green Skull, Blue Cat and Red Bottle also has a Fauvistic wildness of colour, the objects swaying and melting as if through a drunken haze. Thomson quotes Van Gogh and German Expressionism as influences and certainly these two pictures alone simmer with a restless vitality.
Vitality is certainly very much in evidence in the work of another of the founders of Stuckism, Joe Machine. Edward Lucie-Smith has described Machine as “the successor to Francis Bacon and William Blake” and Machine does have something of Blake’s visionary quality and Bacon’s fearless pursuit of the graphic. Jacob Wrestling The Angel and Samson and the Lion are intoxicatingly freshly coloured examples of this visionary quality, while his Study of Anna Geislerova, the Czech actress, is a charmingly hypnotic composition, the actress’s flame-like sweep of hair pouring over her shoulder like lava while she regards us with chilled blue eyes and a lightly gripped glass of champagne.
Joe Machine, Samson and the Lion, acryl on canvas, 2017
For William Balthazar Rose art is “not a service industry” or “an investment opportunity,” “art expresses the strivings of the spirit.” His paintings represent “a delving into the subconscious and mysterious portions of the collective and personal psyche.” Which portions of the collective and personal psyche his series of pictures depicting cooks represents is difficult to say, but they’re amusing, evocative and have a certain dream-like sense of immediacy. Two of the series of paintings involving cooks are on show in the exhibition, No Way To Turn and Next Exit, the first seeming to depict a cook in some kind of existential panic, the other features an enigmatic figure in dark red seemingly exiting the the back wall of the painting. Whose Dream Is This? set on an easel in the main exhibition space looks like a piece of stained glass, its oils – painted on wood – have such deep provocative colour, its riotous arrangement of figures such a fluid musical quality. Rose is interested in the kind of painting which creates a sense of “the suspension of time” and Whose Dream, like a piece of stained glass in a church window comes very close to achieving this invaluable effect. It arrested me as soon as I walked into the room, a focus for all the daylight coming through the windows, and focusing the attention. It’s like an allegory whose meaning cannot be known.
Jonathon X Coudrille is also interested in dream-like states and has long been influenced by surrealism. The surrealistic paintings exhibited here lack the disturbing, threatening aspects of Dali or Yves Tanguy’s work, with their warm colours and elegantly flowing shapes, but then not all dreams are threatening or disturbing, and few surrealism -influenced painters have been concerned with rendering the beauty of good dreams or the less nightmarish aspects of the unconscious. But there’s something very restful and reassuring about Coudrille’s Journey’s End 2, with the soaring rear-end of a beached ship, its propellor lying more like a shell than a man-made object in the foreground, and a crescent moon in a beautiful blue sky floating above. The Mole-Catcher’s Daughter fits more obviously in what we might call the Surrealist Tradition, with a naked female torso planted in a box in a stretch of desert, one shoulder sprouting feathers the other encased in highly reflective armour, but though suitably strange the picture is more decorative than disconcerting.
Another of Stuckism’s founding fathers, Eamon Everall, employs a Cubist technique in many of his paintings, and though personally I always felt there was something pedantic and pseudo-scientific about Cubism, in Everall’s hands the technique comes closer to achieving its central aim of showing things from multiple perspectives, and in doing so, get to their essential reality. Everall’s paintings are built up very slowly and therefore reward lengthy viewing, but the overlapping planes of pictures like Breakfast Time and Triumph do create a great sense of solidity, of the thickness and variegatedness of things. Everall is as much concerned with colour as form, his oils positively iridescent with scintillating light, and he isn’t short of sense of humour. I particularly enjoyed Blue Nun Still Life. In the UK ‘Blue Nun’ wine is associated with what are disparagingly called ‘winos’ -street alcoholics – here their favourite cheap tipple is taken decisively up-market, sitting like a bottle of Moet Chandon on the table of a Mediterranean balcony. The wine is accompanied by a box of Swan Kitchen Matches and a can of Newcastle Brown Ale.
It’s a move from the intimate to the expansive when we come to Anna Keen’s contemplative city landscapes. There’s something refreshingly bold in her subjects: Coliseum and bus, Rome, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, and Grain Fort, Number 1, The Thames, capturing not just the timeless majesty of these historic buildings but their living interaction with light and weather. Like Turner’s pictures, we seem to be looking at them at a particular moment under a particular, unique combination of conditions. Majestic subjects, and yet, such is Keen’s intensely subtle handling of light and shade that the Coliseum and Santa Maggiore are full of fragility, like great seashells harbouring delicate essences of the past.
There’s a contemplative feel to much of the portrait work of Raoof Haghighi, and that ‘suspension of time’ William Rose is interested in achieving. White Blue Purple is a prime example: a young woman, lightly embracing herself and looking pensively out of what we assume to be a window. Whatever thoughts and feelings have brought her to this momentary ‘loose end’ she’s composed and dignified and this small picture is rich with limitless dimensions of stillness. There’s a similar sense of stillness in the self-portrait Nothing, Haghighi sitting in a mildly defeated posture in front of a canvas. It’s a moment most artists will recognize, that feeling of utter emptiness which is both worrying and simultaneously a spur to create. There’s also something humble in Haghighi’s portrait of the artist at work, or rather the artist wondering if he’s going to work at all, which is a nice quiet rebuke to all the brash egoism and loud self-promotion of many of the ‘Brit Art’ generation. Edward Lucie-Smith’s superb selection of current British artists shows us that Britain is still very much the home of artistic diversity, a land – but let’s not get too Churchillian – of mavericks, experimentalists, and people who aren’t afraid of pursuing their own ideas, however unfashionable or however much they go against the grain of the Art Establishment.
Contemporary British Art
Černá Labut Art and Event Gallery
Na Poříčí 1067/25, 110 00
Nové Město, Prague
Until 1 April
Images courtesy of Černá Labut Art and Event Gallery, Prague and the artists