I see my painting exploring ignored or discouraged options for style and themes. I see technique and iconography as continuous, shifting and manifold. My pictures advertise the array. Yet I am not interested in eclecticism and demonstrations of versatility or virtuosity. I reject clever compilations, convenient sentiments and dutiful policies, obvious myth and easy historical allusion. I want something more demanding, distinctive and defiant.

I am interested in the murky territory in between these things, the overtones and undercurrents, leaps and guesses, lies and mistakes; the flow to meaning in pictures that make worlds.

December 2013


I see my work properly emerging in the late 80s, as part of the reaction to Neo-Expressionism. Painting there ranges between more sophisticated allusion and more literal subjects treated as picture categories. These are not the only developments to the period of course but I see these as dominant trends. One branch steadily advances to sophisticated caricature and pastiche, often couched in art historical and literary terms. Examples range from Mark Tansy to John Currin, Glenn Brown to Neo Rauch. The other branch turns to categories of photography, strips them down to stark literal content through distinctive painterly treatment. Examples range from Luc Tuymans to Elizabeth Peyton, early Peter Doig to Wilhelm Sasnal and Eberhard Haverkost. The first branch returns painting to a version of history painting, the second to the discernment of contemporary genres.

My approach allows the painterly more form than genres, allows allusion more scope than art history. I am drawn to contemporary, familiar subjects, but prefer a more elusive or abstract treatment. Conversely, while I often use photographic sources, it is to the exclusion of their ostensible subject matter. Treatment may be painterly or derived more from print-sources, depending on subject matter. Subject matter may be print-sourced or art historical, depending on treatment. There is no right or wrong in these matters, obviously, much less better or worse. What counts is what is said or expressed and how this fits with broader tastes. On this last point, since my work shuns doctrinaire issues of identity and cultural correctness, neglect from critical and curatorial quarters is only to be expected. My aesthetic ambivalence thus extends all the way to cultural policy, but defying orthodoxy comes at a cost. My aim here however is simply to indicate relations with contemporaries.

My work initially dealt in vigorous stretching of form and content in Workouts (1987-8) a series about physical fitness. Figures were built from diverse parts derived from organic, mechanical and graphic sources. The aim was to recycle or re-orientate content as form. Effectively, parts of a subject were form, the whole of form its subject. Or, a little content was form; a lot of form was content. However the results often amounted to just Archimboldo-like ambiguity or a rabbit-duck oscillation and fell somewhat short. The subsequent series Domestic Routines (1989-92) stretched range of sources and degree of fragmentation and often involved more elaborate settings for figures engaged in extravagant gestures to everyday routines. It certainly cancelled any neat oscillation between recognitions. Now the subject seemed to cheerfully explode into chaotic abstraction or scarcely cohered as disparate content. The results were by no means disappointing. An extreme range of formal elements or parts arises in a number of artists from this time, ranging from Lari Pittman to Fiona Rae to Albert Oehlen amongst others. What distinguishes my use is a fragile but persistent perspective or single picture plane. The work never quite surrenders to full abstraction or some more schematic subdivision, so that figuration nags away in the background. The theme becomes a disavowal or radical distancing from a suburban lifestyle.

The next series, Car People (1992-95) pursued this alienation on more sombre terms and greatly simplified parts for drivers in and around their cars. Yet the simplification did not bring any greater familiarity or coherence. On the contrary, stricter means inspire a greater elusiveness or displacement for subject. In terms of scale, proportion, spatial orientation and tonal values, the work builds starker, more obtuse glimpses; blurs and compounds some qualities to a subject, scatters others, places a premium upon a gestalt or holistic orientation, indeed circumstance. Construction is thus just as abstract, as distancing or estranging as preceding series. Here a certain kind of driver is rendered profoundly disconnected or as outsider, even to the norms of depiction.

But the spectral quality, of shifting and conflicting aspects to a subject need not be entirely a matter of picturing. The next series, Deep Shopping (1996-7) turned to a subject that in itself is markedly illusory – retail display. Here, presentation builds ‘looks’ for retail goods that similarly acquire and highlight certain qualities according to angle, lighting and props. In the series, shopper and mannequin become interchangeable, depending on setting or props. This play between deliberate presentation and pictorial representation is pursued through subsequent series, Acquired Taste (1996-7) dealing with food presentation, Serenades (1997-98) dealing with pop singers, Sculptures (1999-2000) paintings of public sculptures and Cityicity (Part 1: 2000, Part 2: 2012) with period urban architecture. Each series allows slight adjustment to my approach and resulting mood but essentially I still work from photographic sources that suggest drastic reorientation and approximate interpretation as a novel subject. This has been augmented in various ways with the adoption of digital means but the formal convictions remain the same – converting content to form and vice versa. Essentially I treat photographs in the same way Leonardo treated stains on walls.

While estrangement and deception are involved in all of the work to some extent, they are extended in different ways, express different attitudes or moods. Acquired Taste and Serenades for example, appeal to olfactory and auditory senses and are less about estrangement than seduction or an effusive charm offensive. They coax a synaesthesia or overwhelming ambience. Other series, such as Likeness (1999) – ten portraits of famous artists and intellectuals – concentrate squarely on the issue of facial resemblance and its persistence even in severe stylisation, so that personality somehow transcends the most austere of forms. It has been remarked that this amounts to caricature but I see no ridicule in my approach. A following series Closeups (1999-2000) of fifteen ‘movie characters’ (again, basically just heads) probably comes closer to caricature. There is a more light-hearted side to the work. Privacy (2005-14) is devoted to the female nude in domestic interiors where the degree of fragmentation is more restrained, the effect more spontaneous and playful and together with the small scale of the paintings, enhances an intimacy rather than apprehension. The approach thus demonstrates an expressive as well as thematic range. The pictorial dissonance may be applied to less familiar or traditional themes. In Crusade Culture (2009-10) and Decline (2013) civic strife and social decay are registered as a structural irresolution, not so much estranged or deceptive as unstable, corrupted. Recent series such as Encryption, Endangered Species and Camouflage each find other metaphors for this structure, extend the scope of the project.

August 2016

Posted 11/10/2012 by gerrybellart

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