Baroque, Banal & Uncanny [Peculiar Culture at the AGGV]

[Originally published in Fault Line in the spring of 2007] 



First, the Received Information:

Peculiar Culture is an alternate dimension of the AGGV’s Baroque extravaganza, aiming to “explores contemporary expressions of the Baroque”, bringing together Uvic’s Luanne Martineau with notorious Young British Artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. We read that Martineau and the Chapmans like Baroque artists, “combine beauty, perversity, humour and horror to engage the audience with their elaborate executions”.

The notion of extending an ethos beyond its historical context here is provocative and potentially relevant; especially as the accompanying Misshapen Pearl exhibit works to flesh out said context. As the promotional material notes, the Baroque period saw the exploitation of high production values to communicate religious themes in a direct, theatrical manner that implicated the viewer’s emotional involvement, and that the aristocracy also saw the dramatic style as a means of expressing wealth, power and control…the artwork as counter-reformation propaganda, a spectacle of force that conjoins religious experience with the language of power for the last, definitive time in Western Culture before the Age of Reason took hold.


Perhaps you could posit that Baroque imagery creeps into our own millennial zeitgeist as an exposition of the morally freighted power relations of the Neocon era with their ever -elaborating of modes of promotion, commodification, security and surveillance. Contemporary visions of the Baroque, like the films of Peter Greenaway or the pickled sharks of Damien Hirst, call to mind a culture voyeuristic to the point of moribund ‘pornocracy’, obsessed with the palpable possession of material prestige (as in real estate) in an abstracted, information-based society.

All this is by way of relating to some of the information posted with the exhibition: that
Martineau’s felt sculpture – “addresses social realism, racism and conceits of high modernism”, by using traditional felting techniques to create “beautifully grotesque soft sculptures”. The Chapman brothers are billed as ‘collaborating’ with Goya, taking some of the imagery and much of the look of his famous Disasters of War and Caprichos etchings, and combining them with their own lexicon: stabbing middle fingers, swastikas, and mushroom clouds.


Chapman Fingers


Recently a student reminded me that a lot of the Chapman brothers’ images might emerge from a 1970’s adolescence: the mushroom cloud everyone learned to expect (as in Generation X writer’s Douglas Copeland’s many and varied suburban nuclear apocalypse fantasies), the swastika’s Holocaust as not-quite-fiction agitated into an open sore by the middle-fingering sex pistols. But there are other implications that build through the consistencies and inconsistencies of the staggered prints. The image of a hanging man (cribbed from the Disasters of War) appears as a repeated emblem…Like the Chapmans’ swastika of severed fingers, it is the gesture created out of dead parts, bringing to mind something that is acted upon but does not act – human meat as emblem, but not agent. The image breaks out of a stew of loose marks and scratches (a mannered nod to old-master facture) to become an intractable revenant…a body without an internal organizing principle that has been shaped into its present condition by terrible force.


This suggestion of invisible, violently oppressive or torturous forces working on the body recalls French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s writing about another displaced expression of Baroque: Francis Bacon’s images ‘screaming’ Popes, drawn from incomplete quotations of Titian and Velasquez.[1] Deleuze suggested that Bacon’s incomplete figural expressions amount to a kind of mapping of call and response from the painted body to our own, a catalogue of twitches, reflexes, starts, pains, rushes and jitters, what Bacon referred to getting across the sensations of ‘the nervous system’.[2]


The trouble with the etchings is that what happens on a physical, ‘nervous’ level with Bacon (and, as I’ll go on to say, in Martineau) is literalized into sensationalistic illustration the etchings. The smudges in the etchings look quoted: they’re too deliberately positioned in relation to the source of their quotation to be felt directly, rather than through historical reference-making, so the sensation is not immediate, informal and rich with crude/sophisticated ambiguities as in original Goya, but is a slightly queasy ‘slippage’ (there’s that word again) from reference to an implied content.


The confluence of the etchings (as an accumulative experience, as in their staggered hanging) is a stain or a smear – linguistically, a kind of slur, a word that doesn’t have its own meaning but refers only to the indignity of another word or identity…as the bodies are not ‘whole’ bodies, they suggest a syntax that is not whole. As a totality, they don’t add up to anything like the imminent sense of the farcical or monstrous that develops in Goya. Instead, they look like public toilet scrawls or the marginalia in a high-school notebook. I like the idea that hysterical, circumspect, self-defeating adolescence owes something to Goya & vice versa –because it does- but it gets a lot more mileage in ballpoint on notebook paper than in the overcultivated replications that are the etchings.


Bacon and Goya both assembled a visual syntax language out of parts: Bacon’s consisted of film stills, stop-motion-photography, art historical reproductions, newspaper clippings and his own photographic studies of models. Goya’s was cobbled together from first-hand Velasquez, second-hand Hogarth and Rembrandt, and probably some influence of his one-time acquaintance with Piranesi. In both cases, there was an expedience or impoverishment of resources that retained its fragmentary character in being deployed in the service of an incomplete subject. Goya’s etchings are filled with elements of visual obscurity that the look and mode of printmaking accommodates…the viewer feels that clarity is being deferred, and both desires or dreads a sharper view; Bacon, for his part, could not assemble his compositions without an accidental mark. I love that the Chapman Brothers have made dioramas using old Airfix WWII modelling kits. My feeling is that by sticking with an as-yet-unconsolidated vernacular (late 20th century male adolescence), the sense of the unformed body as the potential threat or liberator of the pictures would have some serious power.


Figure Felt


By comparison Luanne Martineau’s felted pieces are more immediately affecting.

The nature of the felted material, and its unsuitability in creating sculptures that look like bodies presents the most obvious superficial tension. The pieces remind us of clothing, blankets, upholstery or cushions, but up close reveal parts (appendages, limbs, extremities) creating confusion over whether they are passive (as in garments or furniture, porous and domestic) or active (tactile, potentially responsive, alive, becoming).  Standing close to them, it is hard not to feel ticklishness in the spine or fingertips at the dramatic physical character of this contradiction.


What allows this contradiction to become durable, surviving the initial impact of their own visual/tactile hook, is the unresolved nature of the felting and sewing. Felt itself is already an aggregate, and in the errant stitches and half-formed structures, there is an aggregate of time and attention. There is a suggestion of denseness in both the immediate look and feel of the work, then, that is met by the implicit labour the work took to produce. The sense of handwork keeps getting bumped out of the way by the gestalt of the pieces as figures, however, so that something ‘uncanny’ emerges in the struggle, like the growth of a bacterial culture from spilled milk or a stalagtite from mineral runoff…a mindless, continuous development that threatens to take on the stature of a full-blown organism.


Like the Chapmans, Martineau places her work in opposition to a formal/ historical mode of viewing, in this case the body in relation to architectural elements that enclose, elevate and define it: plinth, table and chamber. Martineau’s figures are forms that become agglomerations of form before and after they are singularities, and the linear frameworks they are presented in allow them to seduce, beguile and mislead from unified approach to irreconcilable diversity. Here again I’m tempted to refer to Bacon, recalling John Berger’s note that the details of rooms, furniture and tailoring invariably survive the contortions of his figurations intact, supplying an institutional foil for the crisis of the body[3]. These stage-dressings (preciously complex in the early work, cruelly simple in the late) were part of Bacon’s interest in the motif of the crucifixion.


Martineau’s tall piece that runs from the floor to the wall in fact resembles a similar form in Bacon’s Three Studies for a Crucifixion Three (1962). It seems to simultaneously slump and rear up. Like certain insects, what we first assume to be the ‘head’ might just as easily be the tail. This also recalls the figuration of Philip Guston’s late work, all legs that don’t lift and noses dangling like worn out genitals. The analogy is to these painters more than superficial: both Bacon and Guston employ a stroke that hangs suspended from its impetus, looking both dead and alive. Matineau’s handwork is a series of episodes like a painter’s bouts and flurries, and their own deft absorptions belie an inert centre.


In this sense, we could also read the ‘uncanny’ as an cancerous outgrowth of Baroque complexity as the conspicuous display of power … a spider’s web might be creatively misread as  ‘Baroque’ (indeed it was a common 18th century image in music, literature and decoration), but the mummified body of an insect or a bulging egg sack tightly bundled at the centre of the web is a bit uncanny. It implies that a stylistic mode that has been made to contain more than can be demonstrated or comprehended from the usual point of its attraction. I say, ‘cancerous’, because display without communication becomes an endless repetitious cycle, a multiplication without fertility, an elaboration that becomes self- referential and self-consuming. Martineau’s pieces present an unseen, unaccountable process posed in the attitude of disconnected, explicit display.


Wrapping Up


Where I would like to go with the spider analogy is to say that awful stopping-point of repetition/complexity versus display/inertia in Martineau’s presentations always offers more: there is a weird, conciliatory the possibility that the web can be rebuilt again and again, and that the subject represented may be neither dead or alive for certain. More pointedly, that its means of continuity may not fall under the usual categories of dead or alive, but instead present an array or bacterial or insect behaviours: superficial appendages, camouflage, cannibalism, feigned death or sexless reproduction. What they present is the sub-human as possibly more than human, which I suspect is their connection to issues of racism and genocide.


In that essay on Francis Bacon, Berger ultimately condemns Bacon as a conformist, for presenting behaviours without offering relief from them, a state which Berger compares to the implied abjection latent in a Disney cartoon character (here supplied by a grainy illustration of a 1960’s Donald Duck). I think that Berger is off the mark…he touches on, but fails to reveal a more complex operation in Bacon’s work that demands a more open reading: David Sylvester’s early essays on Bacon identify a problem with Bacon’s use of background space in relation to his figures that gets closer to the point.[4] In any case, I was led to the Disney/Bacon contrast in part because of Martineau’s references (via the text panel and her drawings) to early pulp cartooning like R.F. Outcault’s “Yellow Kid”. Berger suggests a static presentation of either a Bacon or Disney image with the imagined caption “This is all there is”. What he implies is that both Bacon and seminal Disney possessed a transfixing power in presenting a fully realized language of distortion as if it were a state of open transition. That is, you think the cartoon characters are flexible, but their grotesqueness is in fact terribly consistent, surviving temper tantrums and falling pianos without noticeable consequence. Bacon seems to present a character in metamorphosis, but has swept away all but the most superficial cues to the picture as a narrative construction. There is no way out or in, only display.  


In many of his early, darker pictures, Bacon employed certain props that now seem arch, notably putting sheet glass in front of his work in a way that caught the viewer’s reflection, teasing out the question of a more direct, visceral engagement of the viewer that broke through the convention of ‘illustration’ that Bacon both condemned and mastered. I want to put Martineau’s work on one side of the glass and the Chapman’s on the other. I want to say her work connects you more directly with all of these problems in a way that goes on connecting, altering, offering possibilities; while the etchings are a footnote, a closed episode, a look in on Goya’s content of fantasy, depravity and gravity that proves to also be a bore: a definitive, limiting spectacle.  







[1] C.f. Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, “The Diagram” and “Painting and Sensation”), and in general their use of Artaud’s ‘body without organs’.


[2] I realize that Bacon is the uninvited guest here, but he has been a certifying ghost for a particularly Young British expression of the abject. There is the apocryphal story, for instance, of Bacon’s being transfixed before a Damien Hirst cow head, which served at the time as a sort of passing of the torch from one generation –and kind of notoriety- to another.


[3] C.f. John Berger, “Francis Bacon and Walt Disney”, About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

[4] C.f. David Sylvester, “Bacon I”, in his recent posthumous anthology, About Modern Art, Critical Essays 1948-2000, Revised Edition.  London:  Pimlico, 2002.


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