Jeff Gibbons: 'VANITAS'

5 Mar 2009 – 3 Apr 2009

Art Space Gallery

London, United Kingdom


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Silence and Painting

Although words feature extensively in Jeff Gibbons paintings ironically I am often at a loss for what to say. Prolonged silence. Visual as well as tactile, layered sources combine to create the work. These are eclectic, from pop culture, especially music and chat shows, to painting's past, architecture, philosophy, theology, death, deprivation, sex and religion. The novelist Aaron Appelfeld particularised the nuances of human generosity in the throes of despair with the distinction that 'man is not an insect'.

Feeling abject is part of life and painting provides a means to bring abjection into a frame of reference. The works titles are important, 'there is no point in this painting' immediately you have it, the failure of painting in general and in particular, to extend the sum of its parts. But because they address pointlessness the idea of futility is inescapably present. Deadpan, the humour of the perspectival exercise, is neatly drawn beside marks loosely applied to belie an authority he pretends is not the case. Another instance is in the signing of work, when faux naïf signatures mock the studiously acquired letter formation as well as the amateur's need to claim the work's identity. The play on signature and language is poignant and he teases authorial certitude whilst asserting it. Un-stretched canvas emphasises it's flimsy quality, like the paint it's bare-faced. The handling is brash but surprisingly subtle, and it subverts expectation, again coming up against the serious side of humour. A cup of tea, but you'd prefer wine. The letter t removed from the word paint ' pain drops in, beside the economically depicted polystyrene cup is a pill, liquid everywhere, in the fluidity of paint and liquidity of existence. The application of paint is like spew and it is strangely beautiful. It resonates despite the bleak character of much of the work. 'Alley', the large walk-in painting constructed from facing canvases forces the viewer's proximity to painting's physicality and substance, literally as well as metaphorically. One is led down the alley to a no man's land on the edge of culture where bad things happen, bones, brains and brief encounters, the phrases recall stand up comedy, 'a mere pin let life begin' or 'doctors find no cure for death but are working on it'. Marks and images converse with painting's language, especially the vanitas tradition, to make paintings about death and life's smug vanity, the still life, nature morte, is brutal fact; the thin line between life and death is what these work insist upon.

Gibbons work demands reflection on the distinctive condition of looking and thinking about the action of looking at painting 'how to look at a painting'. There is no easy, fast response. Perceptually they are slow release. These paintings are not about the reassurance of making comfortable relations with the world. The condition of silence brings the possibility of accepting this kind of uneasiness.

Jo Melvin
January 2009

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