The Aesthetics of violence in the work of Tom de Freston
by Christiana Spens
For full length interview which accompanied the essay- The Quietus
Tom de Freston’s body of work is a chaotic-seeming world of the grotesque and the shocking, where the darkest aspects of human nature emerge in frames and tones of comedy and tragedy, animation and rigidity, fusing an adventurous and provocative imagination with insights into a recognisable real world. His canvases have depicted Shakespearean heroes and villains in grotesque, and very modern, environments, where a sense of acute claustrophobia expands and compounds with each new room compacted in canvas. There is a careful combination of brilliant imagination, of testing the very limits of human freedom and desire, along with spaces that are prison-like and oppressive. In each canvas there is a struggle between environment and desire, between ambiguous characters, between beauty and horror.
In De Freston’s most recent works, these conflicts are brought to a new crescendo, and a fresh relevance brought to modern preoccupations, secrets, and shame. Paintings concerned with water-boarding, public (and private) violence, and ideas of dehumanisation and pain, all follow logically from his previous work, and bring the uncanny connections between Shakespearean themes of human cruelty and dark magic, to situations that reference the contemporary iconography of terrorism and warfare. The spectacles of violence, whether inspired by Shakespeare or Abu Ghraib, are consistently horrifying and fascinating; as viewers we are challenged by these twin sensations of revulsion and interest, of recognition and distance, and by the implications of these reactions for our wider culture that seems to promote a sensationalism of this performed violence. De Freston, rather than exploit that cultural, and perhaps human tendency, allows us to step back and realise how horrifying that behaviour is (rather than simply the acts of torture themselves). Twice removed from the violence, perhaps, we might acquire some humanity in contemplating, with De Freston, the bizarre ritualization and performance of violence that is so prevalent in the culture he considers, as well as the history of art he references and learns from, particularly the work of Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Rubens, J. L. David, Gericault, Delacroix, Picasso, Bacon, De Kooning and Richter.
In Dead Son (2011) the aerial view suspends a moment of familial grief, leaving the viewer feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic, the blood red endowing the scene with the needless tragedy of war. Last Judgement (2013) depicts a cascade of semi human figures nose-diving in to oblivion, where the living figure and his dog appear to have arrived at this scene unexpectedly.
De Freston’s new works employ a lexicon of images to create a sense of arbitrariness and dismay: horses and horse heads, architectural forms: doors, windows; and art historical references create compositions that can be seen to plead against the madness of corrupt power systems that have institutionalised grotesque torture practices. The artist creates both mayhem (in which the viewer feels diminished) and a sense of apocalyptic urgency too; while at the same time there are sombre haunting presences too within the same picture plane leaving the viewer perplexed.
In A pity (2013) Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are given a token presence, painted in a decorative mode redolent of digital processes, the flattening of form and blocks of colour; a light bulb makes a reference to Francis Bacon and also to Philip Guston, both of whom delved into the depths of human depravity. The platform on which the horse/man figures are placed is an ambiguous form, somewhere between a sofa and a deconstructed architectural model – floating in space with the storm above creating a sense of doom or Romantic drama. De Freson juxtaposes random forms to create messages and images that must be navigated by the viewer: a hovering theatrical stage is rather more like Dr Who’s Tardis than anything homelike, attached to the ground. Storms are created through painterly sections of a canvas such as that in A Pity (2013), where a tidal wave pours through the bathroom ceiling. Raft (2013) makes reference to Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, (1819) which told the story of a shipwreck where the captain evacuated the ship with his crew leaving 149 passengers on a makeshift raft, cut adrift, leaving them to suffer and die. The episode, graphically captured by Géricault, created a political scandal. De Freston’s raft is inhabited by golems, the clay figures from Jewish legend who come to life by magic. The desperate drowning figures here with black eye sockets hover desperately between life and death – a searing image of human cruelty and suffering.
De Freston’s own experience directing and observing both actual theatre, and wider media versions of world political events, have also contributed to this construction. In the former, a scene where “witches water-boarding Macbeth” emerged in later drawings and then canvases, meaning that the concern for the drama of conflict and violence were filtered through a staged production. As an audience member, of sorts, the artist’s portrayal of the media’s depiction of terrorism enables him to find resonant forms for the unpalatable truths diluted through mass media. De Freston in fact started his Fine Art Foundation course on September 11th 2001 and he views his artistic development to have taken place in the wake of the event, the ramifications of which have cast a dark shadow over global politics since.
While De Freston’s recent work side steps an overt political message, his referencing of torture and power relations will inevitably inspire political thought in many viewers. His primary fascination is with human nature, which does not as such condemn; rather he presents human drama in all its ambiguity and complexity. Informed by the study of History of Art at Cambridge, De Freston’s approach to the painting of violence has evolved in parallel to the definition of his personal ideas about the role of art in society. Whilst doubting the power of painting to change views or to offer up theoretical solutions or spiritual experiences, de Freston states: “I do still believe that works of art can be part of a wider network of experiences and ways of thinking and seeing that can help shift and change the structures of our society. This is quite an idealistic, optimistic and Romantic hope.” (De Freston, 2013)
Aware of the challenges of painting, in a world where commercial interests and critical acclaim may lead to an elite appreciation, rather than a wider audience and implicit social value, and aware of the downfalls of even a slightly Romantic vision of the artist’s role in society, De Freston nevertheless persists with the most admirable qualities of that philosophy. In choosing to paint, and in allowing difficult themes of human cruelty and public violence to emerge in his work, a spirit of liberty and intellectual freedom flourishes. It is of course up to the viewers to react in ways that may affect social change – “Ultimately it is politics and communities that make changes, not art,” – but De Freston has at the very least given viewers the provocation to think freely about universal issues that have fascinated him for years, and which are of relevance and interest to audiences in our immediate environment, and far beyond.