Galerie Michael Haas, Berlin 1 April - 23 April 2016
'All perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention' Rudolph Arnheim
The evocative title chosen by Jonathan Wateridge for his latest series of meticulously rendered, searingly observed paintings, suggests the genesis of a new settlement or even species. Few (if any) figurative painters working today, could hope to combine such clarity of perception with the painterly treatment that Wateridge affords his protagonists. 'Pinned and wriggling against the wall' they are not, but though seemingly oblivious to scrutiny, Wateridge's subjects are no less specimens under the modern microscope. 1
The subjects of Wateridge's new paintings are familiar to all of us. They are young and unlike traditional communities which are comprised of all ages, they are clumped together like fresh worker bees in new housing developments on the peripheries of cities. The 'colonists’ buy their furniture from IKEA and their clothes look like they come from the same wardrobe. The lack of difference is palpable by its absence.
Watching from the upstairs window of his London studio these past five years, Wateridge saw some of these new colonies arise. He witnessed people enacting their daily exercise routines in their bedrooms and filling their houses with the same furniture. From a little distance at least, everyone looked the same. There was the sensation of observing - not individuals - but conditioned subjects, unwittingly caught up in a system and context within which they have little autonomy.
Perhaps because he began to develop this body of work during the height of the Edward Snowden revelations (and therefore the issue of pervasive political interest and control over private space was current and pressing), Wateridge began to think about the domestic space as a newly fascinating arena for exploration. Rather than observing directly from life and spying on his subjects in the manner of a voyeur, Wateridge continued a practice forged in previous bodies of his work, such as his 'Monument' series. He created and staged life-size scenarios, casting and directing actors in their roles as these new 'colonists'. To all intents and purposes, the resulting paintings appear to capture 'real' moments in 'real' lives, whereas in fact the entire process is a cleverly orchestrated fabrication. The jolt of realising that an apparent 'reality' is in fact a staged or projected fantasy of the artist, leads us into the territory of the uncanny. In his famous essay on the subject in 1919, Freud refers to the German psychiatrist, Jentsch, who talked of the sense of disquiet or even horror we might experience when something we thought was natural or life-filled, is revealed to be lifeless. Using Hoffmann's story of the Sand-Man, with the apparently 'live' automaton doll to illustrate his argument, Jentsch believed that uncanny feelings would be summoned when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, or when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one.
Intriguingly, Wateridge describes his figures as 'akin to marionettes' and their gestures as: 'often limp, stretched or in movement.' The artist's carefully controlled process and 'fly on the wall', documentary-style presentation of his subjects, echoes the global trend towards greater government monitoring of private as well as public spaces. The uneasiness engendered by the idea that an Orwellian nightmare may already have come into being, heightens our senses and prompts us to be alert to signs of latent manipulation. Thus in 'Pullover', the struggle to remove a jumper becomes suggestive of a strait-jacket, and even when the figure is seemingly relaxed, as in 'Couch' where a girl is depicted lounging on a sofa, we feel uneasy because of the feeling that someone or something is watching; as if we are party to a new, virtual and possibly limitless panopticon, and this in turn provides the impetus for an illicit, sexualised charge. Though Wateridge is directing actors to play the roles that others are unwittingly assuming, he too is implicated in our scopophillic culture. His acute sense of perception evokes the watchful observation of the outsider who has arrived in a new context and committed to memory every detail of his new surroundings, most especially the behaviour of those already occupying his new social context.
Wateridge grew up in Zambia. He moved to Britain aged eighteen and went to study in the painting department of Glasgow School of Art. It is ironic that the artist - who went on to embrace figurative painting as his chosen medium and has been duly celebrated for his results - struggled so hard with committing to painting during his student years. Acutely conscious of the developments in new media and the discourses surrounding film, photography and installation-based practice, Wateridge chose to separate himself from a medium that in the early 1990's, was considered by a large proportion of the art world to be anachronistic or even arcane.
It took Wateridge over ten years to return to painting, and his practice during this period - most notably his interest in film - underpinned and informed the paintings that he is recognised for today. These he approaches in a deliberately filmic way: setting up often large and incredibly complicated stages, hiring and directing actors and carefully controlling lighting. For the past decade, Wateridge has used the plastic qualities of paint to explore significant societal changes and the complexities of the increasingly blurred lines between fact and fiction, private and public, the virtual and the real. Painting on canvas is a long established tradition and a format that can be read and understood. Far from being outmoded, it facilitates the process of an exploration and deconstruction of contemporary phenomena. In 'Interior' we see the temporary freezing of a face mid conversation on Skype after the Internet connection is lost. In this one pictorial ground we have a window into the real and the imagined and the time and opportunity to consider the strange dislocations that punctuate our modern communications.
This notwithstanding, Wateridge is as interested in the medium of painting itself, as he is in creating and sustaining narratives. For a painting to work on all levels, there has to be a moment when the viewer can lose himself in colour and disappear into a series of abstract marks on a surface. Wateridge has also called upon the ghosts of Abstract Expressionism. The harmonious interplay of horizontal stripes in works such as 'Lift Doors’ is evocative of Mark Rothko's mesmeric colour field works, whereas 'Vent' recalls the 1959 striped paintings of Frank Stella.
Nonetheless, as with so much of Wateridge's work, this simple way of reading it is insufficient to the task of understanding its complexity. He employs the literary device of the leitmotif to create a continuum throughout his paintings. In ‘Colony’ it is the Venetian blinds that provide a backdrop to the peopled scenes, or they stand alone. In both contexts they serve as a reminder of the barrier between the private and public, the seen and unseen, but they also function as a subtle link between the traditions of figuration and abstraction, and the different ways of engaging with paint and space on a two dimensional surface. Whereas the blinds are concerned with access, the vents provide a visual trigger for the flow of energy around a room and pertain to the passive or active status of the figures. There is a rhythm to the paintings, between what is hidden, what is disclosed, and between the subjects and their surroundings.
A master of the mise-en-scene, in this exhibition, Wateridge also acknowledges his love of painting and debt to art history. The result is a body of work that is delightfully poetic, even when confronting the politics of looking. Wateridge has succeeded in providing a very human way of engaging with our increasingly inhuman world.
1 'Pinned and Wriggling Against the Wall'
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot