Andrew Paul Wood – 21 August, 2010
Like a bleak collection of suicide notes, The Illustrated History is a document of the Death of Painting. Boyce clearly relishes the negativity like a connoisseur. Schadenfreude is, after all, the purest pleasure because it is free of envy. It is also a sentimental celebration of sorts, relishing the whole received typecast culture of painting: canvas, palette, smock, beret, mistress, absinthe, syphilis, garret, studio, severed ear, suicide. Modernism was embarrassed by such things, but Postmodernism positively revels in it.
The Illustrated History of Painting
Curated by Justin Paton
13 August -14 November 2010
As the anonymous hack in the MGM studios commissary once quipped, “Shit has its own integrity” - an axiom Roger Boyce appears to have taken to heart in his new exhibition The Illustrated History of Painting at Christchurch Art Gallery. I mean that in a good way. The Cynic, with finely-tuned irony detectors, knows that exuberant and deliberate awfulness frequently achieves a kind of kitschy, sentimental popularity and impact that simply cannot be faked.
That is the spirochete-riddled, schlerotically barnacled bloodstream of popular culture. Under such conditions, what is an artist? Only since the camera drove the Impressionists away from naturalism (and rendered the portrait largely redundant) have paintings been created in the first person. Then, as a safety valve, following the lead of authors James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the painters found ways of hiding behind the work again.
The Illustrated History is a paean of sorts to the artist-as-addlepated-doofus persona that Boyce adopts (as the French say, Bête comme un peintre - ‘as dumb as a painter’) beyond an equally false Grumpy Old Man façade, as a sort of distancing ‘unreliable narrator’ to help him filter and sort aesthetic experiences. It is a truly epic series: 100 small wooden panels. Imagine an art history book - a sort of ‘Great Moments in Painting’ crossed with Vasari and Bellori, a ‘Lives of the Saints’ here, Ovid’s Metamorphoses there, and one of Poussin’s many Academic ‘allegory of painting’ canvases.
The wooden panels are arranged as a single row all around the gallery space, just like a dismembered book, each with its label. The size and medium suggests something devotional - Renaissance panel paintings depicting scenes from a Golden Legend of martyred artists.
The imagined, interposed artist is similar to that characterised by poet John Fuller in his Onegin-esque verse novel The Illusionists (1980), ” ‘…a man / Perfect in every way. Began / In life as an East End shopfront letterer, / Went on to banknotes, but loves art, / Paints the old masters à la carte’…”
And when he was completely blotto
And therefore really up to par,
Another cognac saw a Watteau
Or possibly a Fragonard
Take gradual shape beneath his trembling
Brush. On gin he’d do a Memling.
A schnapps tended to make him squint:
Fine for a Dürer aquatint,
While grappa brought on Titian’s Pontius
Pilate washing his hands of Christ,
A work that wasn’t overpriced
Given he did the hands half-conscious
(Though some de Koonings he had sold
Had been completed while out cold).
Boyce’s surrogate puppet homunculi with their quasi-cliché equipage of palette and easel strive for the heroic heights of Parnassus, but always find themselves in disastrous situations reminiscent of a tidied up Mike Kelley or Manuel Ocampo. The results are scatological, sordid, pathetic and frequently terminal. The little artists fall prey to ribald parody and bitter burlesque crafted out of a syntax of urine, Guston-esque shit, fetishism, accidental death and general mayhem. Little artists are impaled on brushes (Breakthrough), have their heads served up on palettes (The Critic), bleed paint like a mystic and incontinently piss rainbows (Stigmata and Rainbow Coalition) and frequently drown (Great White, Yves, and Agua Libra) metaphorically in the art world. This cathartic act of serial killing (or is it a mass murder massacre?) serves as matrix for a free and critical creative consciousness. An unhappy Postmodernism, eschewing hierarchy of source and history, looks at itself in Interesting Times.
No cliché is left unexplored. In Jackson, Pollock makes his mark by blowing his brains out over the canvass.
Like a bleak collection of suicide notes, The Illustrated History is a document of the Death of Painting (reports of which have been greatly exaggerated, which of course is part of the joke). Boyce clearly relishes the negativity like a connoisseur. Schadenfreude is, after all, the purest pleasure because it is free of envy. It is also a sentimental celebration of sorts, relishing the whole received typecast culture of painting: canvass, palette, smock, beret, mistress, absinthe, syphilis, garret, studio, severed ear, suicide. Modernism was embarrassed by such things, but Postmodernism positively revels in it.
If any South Island installation has the wit and gravitas to stir the stagnant Auckland-centric prejudices of the New Zealand art establishment, The Illustrated History of Painting deserves to be shortlisted for the Walters Prize.
Andrew Paul Wood
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