School Boy Doodles?
Ben Quilty's car paintings are not a childish obsession. They depict the self-destructive urges that lie at the heart of young men.
Six years ago, a reputable Sydney gallery put on a show of 14 portraits in oils on canvas of an old car. The pictures sold like hot cakes. The car, a white 1972 Holden LJ Torana, was in no way a triumph of design, but it had become an icon in its own right. The Holden, though by then almost entirely made in Japan, was Australia's car; and the Torana was Holden's raciest model, built for speed and boy racers. What was more, the pictures were wonderful, painted in what seemed to be a few strokes with a brush loaded with neat paint straight from the tube – blazing whites, midnight purples, throbbing golds. The unmistakeable contours of the Torana leapt from the canvas. Some might have argued that it was just too easy to paint a model that never moved, that artist Ben Quilty was merely engaged in a grown-up form of schoolboy doodling. Others realised that that was exactly the point: the male human's obsessive, unending love affair with his car.
It was the paint that should have silenced the doubters. Nothing about these works was banal. The whiteness of the car body was as telling as the whiteness of an animal skull in a drought landscape; its windows were as deep and unreflecting as the eyesockets of the same skulls. Sometimes the whiteness grinned from the navy-blue depth of an Australian night, sometimes it shone from the aching gold of a dirt track in the back of beyond. The artist sometimes calls these paintings landscapes. Cars are what most people see most of the time – not mountains or trees or churches or sunsets.
Ben Quilty was born a year after the Holden LJ Torana was built. The car was his darling, his ticket to ride, his way out of wherever. In One for the Road (the banal but ominous title is typical), the car is trapped by the picture edge, which cuts off the front end. It is violated, empty, front and rear doors open, and lit by a harsh overhead light, as if it were a crime scene. Behind it there is utter darkness. We cannot know what has happened, or if anything has happened.
Quilty has also drawn hundreds, perhaps thousands of skulls. One of his quests is to find a way of projecting the appeal of death for young men, the craziness of "hard driving", with or without the concomitant of hard drinking. He paints disturbing portraits of men dead drunk, bloated and sick, even portraits of himself unconscious and drooling.
All along Australia's country roads you will encounter works of sinister folk art, strangely exultant memorials to young men annihilated at speed. Some incorporate cans and bottles of beer, still full, as well as personal relics, tattered T-shirts quietly rotting, photographs, fading plastic flowers. Further afield, the cars themselves are the memorials. A broadcaster travelling the Sandover highway, which runs from the Northern Territory eastwards to Queensland, this week reported that in a day's journey she passed 19 "live" cars and 13 dead ones. In the outback, the phenomenon of white-boy self-destruction intersects with Aboriginal recklessness, suicide and parasuicide.
In 1996, in an attempt to understand his destiny as a white Australian, Quilty took a course in Aboriginal history at Monash University in Victoria. Whitefella artists have painted Aboriginal people, much as they might paint any other kind of wildlife; but they have not so far found common ground with indigenous artists, nor have they learned from Aboriginal ways of seeing. Any attempt to copy the stylistics of Aboriginal painting would be denounced as co-option.
In May, Quilty curated an exhibition in Brisbane called On Rage, showing a number of artists, including the Aboriginal artist Daniel Boyd. Quilty's own contribution was Self Portrait Smashed No 4. Daniel Boyd painted a storybook lion, emblem of empire, and called it Once Upon a Time. Quilty took the title of the exhibition from an essay I wrote about the toxic rage that is destroying young Aboriginal men, which he saw as an element in the lives of all young men. He has been attacked for glorifying mindless machismo, but the phenomenon he is struggling with is real. Its appalling consequences are real, too. I want him to paint the burnt-out cars on the Sandover highway. He is one artist who could show you in a heartquake what they mean.
The Return of Painting
Painting is again proving to be the cockroach of the art world. You just can't kill it. No matter how hard you hit it with video art or installation art it rises, Lazarus-like, and twice as strong. The most recent return of the sleeping giant can be traced to New York's Armory Show in 1999, when a tiny painting by Neo Rauch - the leader of the burgeoning Leipzig school of painters - was exhibited.
It caused a sensation. His work subsequently appeared at other art fairs and biennales around the world, as the hype, and his prices, rocketed.
In 2001, a painting by another emerging German artist Kai Althoff sold to collector Michael Hort for $10,000. Forbes magazine recently reported how an offer of $600,000 was recently made for the same painting. If it sounds like a return to the 1980s, when painting became the cultural wing of the stock market, it probably is.
Neo Rauch is to the early 21st century what Julian Schnabel, with his broken-plate paintings, was to that decadent decade, with its shoulder-pads and Reaganomics, but with less macho posturing. If you doubt his prominence, try doing a Google search on his rather unusual name. But neither he, nor Germany, is alone in this resurgence. Charles Saatchi, the art world's corporate barometer of change, is showing nothing but painting exhibitions for his next five shows, well in to 2006. Interestingly, he has broken away from his previous love affair with young British artists, and returned to the global search for new art that so marked his collecting policy, with first wife Doris, in the '80s. And like the early years of that decade, when the most collectable artists were Anselm Kiefer in Germany, Schnabel in America, Francesco Clemente in Italy, Peter Booth, Jenny Watson, Jon Cattapan, and Susan Norrie in Australia, Marlene Dumas in the Netherlands, Steven Campbell in Scotland, and Gerard Garouste in France, the painters of the 21st century to look out for are equally global.
They would include, at the top of the list, Rauch in Germany, and his compatriots Cornelia Renz, Daniel Richter, Tilo Baumgartel, Thomas Scheibitz (exhibiting at present in the German Pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale) and the blue-chip stock of Althoff. Luc Tuymans from Belgium, Dumas from Holland (both having been influential for some years), Dexter Dalwood and Glenn Brown in England, Tal R in Israel, Anne Wallace, Ben Quilty, Victoria Reichelt, Tiffany Winterbottom, Rhys Lee, and Richard Wastell in Australia, Ellen Gallagher and Karen Kilimnik in the US, Michael Lin in Taiwan - the list is long.
As a result of this painterly pressure cooker, all over the world art schools are employing sessional staff who know the ancient skills of stretching a canvas. They are seeking those artists who can pass on the century's old skills of creating a painting from minerals, pigments, oils and binding agents. It is the true alchemist's art, turning base materials into intellectual, emotional and financial gold. In short, painting, like The Terminator, is back. From artist-run-spaces to the auction houses of Christie's and Sotheby's, all forms of painting are being bought, argued over, and enjoyed. And it no longer matters if it is figurative or abstract, modernist or postmodernist - so long as it is painting. Around the world, as we will see, the pages of popular magazines, specialist journals and daily broadsheets are filling with "welcome back" articles on painting's timely return, happening at the very moment when what's been called "techno-fatigue" is hitting the previously dominant areas of digital art, video, and new media.
This, in turn, had usurped the early '90s movement of installation art.
The epicentre of painting's tsunami is the Leipzig School in the former East Germany. To give it its full title it is the Hochschule fuer Grafik und Buchkunst. Painting never fell into decline there, as it did elsewhere over the past 20 years, because of the strong history of social realist painting within the studios. Out of this strange mix of cultural Stalinism, followed by the heady years of German reunification, emerged Neo Rauch, the leader of this group. But he is far from alone.
When Germany recently celebrated and memorialised 60 years passing since the end of World War II, Spiegel magazine, in April, produced a special English "International Edition".
The editorial, penned by Stefan Aust, began: "At 11.01pm on May 8, 1945, the guns fell silent. The High command of the German Wehrmacht had surrendered unconditionally. Adolf Hitler's game was up. Europe lay in ruins. After 12 years of Nazi rule, including 2077 bloody days of war, 60 million dead had been counted."
In response to these horrors, several German painters rose to prominence over two decades ago - Anselm Kiefer with his "paintings" made from lead and steeped in mythology; Gerhard Richter with his death portraits of the Bader Meinhof terrorist group; and Martin Kippenberger with his anarchic paintings, performances and Superfictions.
But what of today's younger generation of German painters? In the same navel-gazing issue of Spiegel, between articles with titles such as "Hitler's Legacy" and "Goodbye Uncle Sam", painting is again elevated on a par with world events in a six-page article with the strap headline "Kraut Art Kraze: the international art market is mad about paintings that are nostalgic, grimly gaudy - and unmistakably German". The term "Eastalgia" is apparently being used to mark this nostalgic turn.
Ulrike Knafel begins her article by introducing us to one of the rising stars of the German art scene, Till Gerhard, who recently showed at New York's Stellan Holm Gallery in Chelsea. "Gerhard's work portrays attractive young people dancing in groups in the grass, or staging a sit-in in a forest setting reminiscent of a romantically dark jungle camp. Occasionally these flower children don parkas and head off for demonstrations, as in 'Acid Rain - Cold Peace'. Berlin's Teufelsberg is visible in the background, complete with the listening posts long operated there by the US and British forces."
Jake and Dinos Chapman
Iakovos "Jake" Chapman (born 1966) and Konstantinos "Dinos" Chapman (born 1962) are English visual artists, often known as the Chapman Brothers, who work together as a collaborative sibling duo. Their subject matter tends to concentrate on whatever is generally deemed to be appalling, vulgar, offensive, etc. — including, in 2008, a series of works that appropriated original watercolours by Adolf Hitler. In the mid-1990s their sculptures were included in the YBA showcase exhibitions Brilliant! and Sensation. In 2003, the two were nominated for the annual Turner Prize but lost out to Grayson Perry.
Jake Chapman was born in Cheltenham and Dinos Chapman in London. Their father was a British art teacher and their mother an orthodox Greek Cypriot (hence "Jake" an anglicized diminutive of the orthodox Iakovos, and "Dinos", a typical diminutive of the orthodox Konstantinos). They were brought up in Cheltenham but moved to Hastings' where they attended a local comprehensive (William Parker School) before both attending the University of East London. Art college - then at Greengate House, Plaistow - and then enrolling at The Royal College of Art, when they worked as assistants to the artists Gilbert and George.
They began their own collaboration in 1991. The brothers have often made pieces with plastic models or fibreglass mannequins of people. An early piece consisted of eighty-three scenes of torture and disfigurement similar to those recorded by Francisco Goya in his series of etchings, The Disasters of War (a work they later returned to) rendered into small three-dimensional plastic models. One of these was later turned into a life-size work, Great Deeds Against the Dead, shown along with Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic, De-Sublimated Libidinal Model (Enlarged x 1000) at the Sensation exhibition in 1997.
The Chapman brothers continued the theme of anatomical and pornographic grotesque with a series of mannequins of children, sometimes fused together, with genitalia in place of facial features. Their sculpture Hell (2000) consisted of a large number of miniature figures of Nazis arranged in nine glass cases laid out in the shape of a swastika. In 2003 with a series of works named Insult to Injury, they altered a set of Goya's etchings by adding funny faces. As a protest against this piece, Aaron Barschak (who later gate-crashed Prince William's 21st birthday party dressed as Osama bin Laden in a frock) threw a pot of red paint over Jake Chapman during a talk he was giving in May 2003. The Chapmans' oeuvre has also referenced work by William Blake, Auguste Rodin and Nicolas Poussin. Jake Chapman has published a number of catalogue essays and pieces of art criticism in his own right, as well as a book, Meatphysics (Creation Books, 2003). The brothers have also designed a label for Becks beer as part of a series of limited edition labels produced by contemporary artists. Using a title from the Tim Burton film, in 2004 they curated A Nightmare Before Christmas as part of the occasional All Tomorrow's Parties music festival at Camber Sands.
From April - June 2003, the Chapmans held a solo show at Modern Art Oxford entitled The Rape of Creativity in which "the enfants terribles of Britart, bought a mint collection of Goya's most celebrated prints - and set about systematically defacing them". The Francisco Goya prints referred to his Disasters of War set of 80 etchings. The duo named their newly defaced works Insult to Injury. BBC described more of the exhibition's art: "Drawings of mutant Ronald McDonalds, a bronze sculpture of a painting showing a sad-faced Hitler in clown make-up and a major installation featuring a knackered old caravan and fake dog turds."While The Daily Telegraph commented that the Chapman brothers had "managed to raise the hackles of art historians by violating something much more sacred to the art world than the human body - another work of art", they also noted that the effect of their work was powerful.
The Chapman brothers were nominated for the Turner Prize in 2003. As well as including Insult to Injury, their Turner Prize exhibit debuted two new works Sex and Death. Sex directly referenced their previous work Great Deeds against the Dead. The original work shows three dismembered corpses hanging from a tree, Sex shows the same scenario, but in a heightened state of decay. Additionally clown's noses are now present on the skulls of the corpses; snakes, rats and insects (like those found in joke shops) cover the piece. Death is two sex dolls, placed on top of each other, head-to-toe in the 69 sex position: despite appearing to be made of plastic it is in fact cast in bronze and painted to look like plastic.
On 24 May 2004, a fire in a storage warehouse destroyed many works from the Saatchi collection including Hell. The brothers subsequently made a very similar, though more extensive, work called Fucking Hell.