Featuring artists Charlie Billingham, Alexander Harrison, Andrea Joyce Heimer, Esteban Jefferson, and Tanya Merrill.
History is not an objective accounting of events. Rather, it is a series of stories told and retold in an effort to shape the world according to the whims and agendas of real people, as well as by the cultural conditions of a particular time and place. Histories are created, disseminated, and passed down, but they are also altered, forgotten, and re-shaped. New Old Histories presents five artists whose approaches to contemporary representational painting abound in narrative and allegory, developing our understanding of what is at stake in how—and by whom—these stories are told. The artists variously co-opt, critique, and upend conventions of historical painting, and in the process provide a lens through which to view the world today.
CHARLIE BILLINGHAM’S (b. 1984, London, UK) boisterous paintings, screens, and interior installations appropriate imagery from the satirical prints of Regency England. Men in undone formalwear and powdered wigs are disconnected from their original contexts so that the absurd, comic, and grotesque become snapshots of bestial inclinations. The artist’s technical approach focuses on pigment, texture, and surface, using both oil and acrylic paint on surfaces of polyester, linen, tapestry, canvas, or wood panel.
Billingham lives and works in London, UK. He completed his joint honors MA at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art in 2008, and received a postgraduate degree from the Royal Academy Schools, London, in 2013. His work is in permanent collections at Saatchi Collection, London, UK; Ramin Salsali Private Museum, Dubai, UAE; Franks-Suss Collection, London, UK; and HSBC Collection, London, UK.
New York-based painter ALEXANDER HARRISON (b. 1993, Greenville, South Carolina) draws on his experiences growing up as a young Black man in the South to explore isolation, longing, and loneliness. Blending references from American cinema, literature, and illustration, with surrealist symbols such as flower heads, the moon, and dislocated limbs, Harrison’s Southern landscapes, often set at dusk, are populated by Black cowboys. Commonly erased by popular culture depicting the South, these figures propose ways in which we might re-emphasize acts of Black heroism in America, and their attire also hints at personal narratives—Harrison notes that his own grandfather often sported a cowboy hat. These inclusions from the artist’s past do not constitute an easy invitation to enter into over-familiarity, however. Utilizing trompe l’oeil framing devices that double as windowpanes or prison bars, Harrison creates portals that establish an immutable distance between subject and viewer, reasserting the melancholic tenor of the themes presented.
Harrison has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Fisher Parrish Gallery, New York, and Various Small Fires, Los Angeles.
ANDREA JOYCE HEIMER’S (b. 1981, Great Falls, Montana) paintings evoke narrative friezes and tapestries, adopting a flattened perspective that speaks to a simultaneity of experience. Her work contains complex, imaginative and original use of symbolic figures and iconography, referencing the Garden of Eden and Greek mythology, while also creating and recording personal mythologies. At the center is a curiosity regarding the subject of loneliness, and her interest in origins—of the universe, of narrative art—respond to the obscurity surrounding her own young life.
Heimer lives and works in Ferndale, Washington. She received an MFA from the New Hampshire Institute of Art and has held teaching appointments at Oregon College of Art and Craft (Portland), Western Washington University (Bellingham), and Emily Carr University of Art and Design (Vancouver).
In his Petit Palais series, ESTEBAN JEFFERSON’S (b. 1989, New York) vaporous canvases depict the sepia-toned art museum in Paris. The artist’s ethereal pencil strokes on brown-stained linen sketch out the museum’s lobby, in which bronze 19th century busts of unidentified African men and women are presented with no details regarding subject, authorship, or provenance. Separated from the Greek sculptures and uncontextualized, the works pose a multitude of questions regarding the colonialist conventions of museum display. Jefferson’s paintings, in response, query whom in art history receives the privilege of being remembered.
Jefferson lives and works in New York. Recent solo exhibitions include Petit Palais at Tanya Leighton, Berlin, in 2019, and an exhibition of the same name at White Columns, New York, in 2020. Also in 2020, as part of Art Production Funds’ citywide exhibition, 50 Artists: Art on the Grid, Jefferson presented an artwork across New York City’s transportation system. In 2021, the artist will present two major paintings at The Shed, New York, for the institution’s Open Call commission.
Three paintings by TANYA MERRILL (b. 1987, New York City) imaginatively examine humankind’s fraught relationship with nature and the paradoxical drives toward both consumption and conservation. Mining narratives from the development of the ecology of the United States, including the blight of the American chestnut tree, they are populated by sympathetic and symbolic non-human figures such as a feeding sow and the charcoal flames of a fireplace. Merrill renders the subtle movement of both with effervescence and immediacy, drawing on motifs from the art historical canon in order to use storytelling as a means to decode 21st-century concerns. Symbols and imagery make repeated appearances from one work to the next, building a mythology of personas and environments.
Merrill lives and works in New York. She received her MFA from Columbia in 2018 and has been the subject of a solo exhibition at Half Gallery as well as participating in group exhibitions at 303 Gallery, New York; Gagosian Gallery, New York; and Almine Rech, London. In 2021, Merrill will be the subject of a solo exhibition at Pond Society, Shanghai.
Image: Alexander Harrison, Beyond The Horizon, 2021, acrylic on panel, 47 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches, 120.7 x 120.7 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
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