Upon the wall of my bathroom, there hangs a small, 11”-x-10” painting by Tom de Freston, depicting a figure stretched out in a shimmering expanse of water. In the corner of this canvas, there is not the usual artist’s signature, but a printed date that reveals the image has been daubed directly onto a page of the Guardian newspaper (the December 28, 2007 edition, to be precise). Each morning, upon exiting the shower, I am confronted with this framed enigma, and given pause to consider its ever-changing meaning. I first purchased the piece as an aspirant journalist in the calm waters before the global financial meltdown of 2008-09, confident that I, too, would soon be able to stretch out and luxuriate in reams of newsprint, to bathe in words. (How wrong I was: owing to the advertising shortfall, column inches in the major newspapers have been reduced dramatically in the years since.)
As it always seems to, though, my film brain has come to hijack my early morning mental roamings. I can’t, now, look at the painting without being reminded of Joe Gillis, the screenwriter lying dead in Gloria Swanson’s swimming pool in the opening moments of Sunset Blvd. (1950), though the water – in this instance, a sparkling aquamarine – is closer to that of a David Hockney canvas, or those well-kept suburban pools through which the athletic Burt Lancaster front-crawled in Frank Perry’s metaphorical drama The Swimmer (1968). What these films share with de Freston’s work is their interest in bodies in states of suspension or limbo: if, contra Swanson, these figures aren’t ready for their close-up yet, they’re well on their way. Their creator, meanwhile, certainly is, making this new exhibition the best chance yet for artlovers to spot a nascent talent rising to the surface.
The more I’ve seen of this artist’s work, the more my investment has actually come to seem atypical. The dominant tones in de Freston’s back catalogue aren’t, it turns out, blues or aquamarines, but altogether earthier: browns, pinks and bold crimsons, of the kind one finds in the red rooms of Ingmar Bergman and David Lynch. It’s these latter two – film artists whose characters similarly exist in suspended states, caught in processes of transformation or decay – with whom de Freston has the greatest kinship, I think. It isn’t just the low-key lighting in his new work You Too, With Or Without You that recalls Lynch’s masterpiece of loneliness Mulholland Dr. (2002), while Desire for the Fall but Nothing at All – a series of reversals upon a checkerboard floor – achieves with images what Lynch did with words in having Twin Peaks’s resident dwarf speak backwards, overturning all previous certainties.
There is, indeed, an element of horror in this artist’s paintings – and in movie terms, it’s that very 1970s horror that insisted upon the fragility of the body, its susceptibility to freakish exterior events. Deposition and Deposition II, the tableaux commissioned in 2009 for Christ’s College Chapel, have obvious religious connotations, yet their restoration and drowning imagery reminds me of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s classic 1973 chiller – and another work in which art history goes hand-in-trembling-hand with human mortality. The farmyard Kama Sutra depicted in Jove’s Last Rape and Sodom recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), with its men in bear costumes glimpsed enjoying inexplicable assignations in the abandoned Overlook Hotel. And anyone who survived through to the conclusion of Lars von Trier’s startling Antichrist (2009) can’t help but spot the resemblance between its vision of souls descending from the heavens and what we witness in de Freston’s Past Judgement.
That de Freston differs in mood from these filmmakers is evident from his knowing, punning titles. The recurring motif in this artist’s often humorous back catalogue – a very light motif, as it happens – is, of course, the red underwear, placing de Freston at the end of a long line of ancestors on the British stage and screen who have insisted there’s at least as much comedy to be gleaned from the nude (or semi-nude) male form as there is beauty – if not more. (de Freston himself donned such garments for his hour on the plinth in Trafalgar Square while participating in Antony Gormley’s One & Other project, demonstrating an admirable eagerness to turn art theory into practice.) The key work in this respect is A Brief History of Heroism, which foregrounds its humour – a male stripper straight out of The Full Monty, a partygoer with what appears a bad head beneath his paper crown – without disavowing the horror unfolding in the background. In de Freston’s work, as in the real world, there is as much to smile at as there is to despair about: you simply have to know where to look.
This is an artist unafraid of bawdiness: clock the altogether voluptuous, Fellini-esque figures on display – on full display, indeed – in The Pink Lady and Him and A Lover’s Discourse. These aren’t the only canvasses to flaunt an Italian heritage, one that meshes clowning with Caravaggio. The figures in de Freston’s work are made subject to a slapstick sensibility, frequently toppled off their podia, knocked head-over-heels or – perhaps more aptly, given the bodily nature of the work – arse-over-tit. In whichever form it arrives, however, de Freston remains entirely at ease with the human form. I’m reminded of the opening of his previous show (held in St. John’s Wood in October 2009) where a naked male performance artist, dripping from head to toe in white gloss paint, emerged from the backrooms to wander among the wide-eyed guests. de Freston himself appeared the heterosexual male least fazed by the spectacle, even as the rest of us retreated a little, worried how we might explain any stains that might get on our clothing.
If I finally insist that de Freston follows in a very British tradition, it’s not to belittle the work or accuse it of parochialism as to acknowledge its astute juggling of high and low cultures: something the cinema, and the British cinema in particular, has always prided itself on. These paintings owe as much to august Peter Greenaway (the British cinema’s foremost professor of art history, director of A Zed and Two Noughts  and the Rembrandt biopic Nightwatching ) as they do rascally Robin Askwith (star of the 1970s Confessions series, and the British actor most often caught with his trousers down on screen). You might see a reference to Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, you might simply see a man in his Y-fronts – and you wouldn’t be wrong either way. It’s that unashamed popularism and inclusiveness that may, ultimately, be the most cinematic element of de Freston’s work.
The more you look at these paintings, the more you see the influence of the movies everywhere. It’s there, undoubtedly, in History Painting, a genuine widescreen epic, boasting a cast of thousands. It’s there in the fondness for triptych or trilogy form expressed in Sodom and Fight For This Love, a work that thankfully has less to do with National Treasure Cheryl Cole than remaking A Brief History of Heroism for a new audience. It’s apparent, too, in the way a work like Spectacle of the Collapse appears to consist of individual frames that require piecing together to form a narrative – our viewing eye, in this instance, becoming the projector through which the image can be read and meaning understood.
De Freston, you sense, recognises and embraces the spectator as an essential part of his process; it explains the presence of that very Frestonian figure – again, clad only in red pants and socks – beckoning us into Past Judgement, and gives the artist’s paintings the welcoming quality with which they attempt to counter the closed-off, autistic and self-satisfied worlds of so much contemporary art. For all their challenging and sometimes disturbing flourishes, these canvasses invite us to recognise ourselves in them, in all our moments of heroism and vulnerability, triumph – and failure. Embrace the pants, they say. Kick off those trousers. Make yourself comfortable. Dive in.