Published in Strife Journal December 2013
I am at the Bresse Little Gallery, surrounded by twelve large canvases by the artist Tom de Freston. They are powerful political paintings which balance a staggering array of painterly approaches and iconography- horse headed figures, pot plants, nods to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, crucifixions and last judgements. Over the course of two hours of interview, we covered a breadth of subjects related to the paintings on show, which made me strikingly aware that these were not in any way didactic paintings, but rather images which open up a depth and range of dialogues. The transcript below is the edited version of this interview.
Pablo de Orellana: Can you tell us why your latest show is called ‘The Charnel House’?
Tom de Freston: There were a few things I wanted the title to allude to. Historically, charnel houses were buildings near churches where the bones from grave digging could be stored. It has passed in to more common parlance to mean a place which houses death, and is often part of the vocabulary of horror fiction. More specifically it is a nod to the Picasso painting of the same title, which was made just after the end of WWII, in a mirror of the way Guernica was made in the build up to WWII. It is a painting which nods to the horrors of the holocaust, setting the fear and mutilation within a domestic setting. Picasso made the unimaginable scale of the suffering of the war and the holocaust specific to one family, which paradoxically and distressingly ups the level of pathos.
The nod to Picasso is obviously overt in the work, most particularly the horses heads which are clearly borrowed from Guernica, which appear obsessively everywhere. Can you tell us more about these?
In Guernica the horse is the central motif in a maelstrom of activity. The whole body breaks, opens up and collapses across and down the centre of the canvas, yet the head is the key, the head is this half mechanical, half animalistic scream. For me it is the most powerful single snapshot from any painting I know in regards to the horrors of war, even more visceral than anything Goya came up with. It is a scream of innocents, even more powerful than the child in the mothers arm to the left of the picture. As such it has, even in the paintings a clear metaphorical dimension. It is obviously a work which deals explicitly with the specifics of the events in Guernica on the 26th of April 1937, during the Spanish civil war. Yet it goes beyond this and talks about more universal themes. It is the power of that which drew me to lifting the motif and borrowing it for new ends.
Having said all that, I think it is important to distinguish the role of Guernica as a source from the broader iconography of horses in art history. When I think of horses I think of the long succession of ridiculous paintings of leaders parading on horses, glorified leaders into war, with the horse as a symbol of the state and the leader therefore as a figure in total command of his people. Velasquez (Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback 1635-36) and J. L. David (Napoleon Crossing the Alps– 1800) are two of the most absurd examples. As such I think all the horse heads, to an extent, have echoes of this type of metaphorical content. The horse is not just a single motif, but a character, or perhaps more a whole case of horse headed characters.
All of which seems to ignore the fact that we are not looking at horses, as with Picasso, but horse-headed people. Where does this anthropomorphic tendency come from and what is its function?
Yes, quite. I wanted to create a central protagonist which was absolutely other, and then to build a world and a fragmented narrative around this character. The horse head provides an ideal model for this. The history of characters with animal heads and human bodies is obviously very rich and is present in mythologies from almost all cultures across the world. There are horse headed figures in various myths (Kinnara in some versions of the Indian myth and Tikbalang in Phillipine folklore), but they are not anything like as familiar as many other hybrid characters. This relative anonymity meant I could construct a mutated mythology around the horse-headed character.
I want to come back later to what appears quite a literary approach, but despite being other these characters are explicitly human in many of their actions. They take baths, look after pot plants, live in houses and shit on the toilet. As to the latter, why is one of your characters having such a horrendous time in the loo?
(Laughing) When put like that it sounds like I might be making adverts for diarrhoea or constipation relief. I’m not sure any marketing team would sanction this particular episode though. The figures on the loo are always slight nods to the Francis Bacon triptych of George Dyer on the loo, which depict the evening he committed suicide in 1971 in their Paris Hotel room. But I more broadly think of bathrooms as the most private of all domestic spaces, and the loo as the pinnacle of this. So any picture of someone on the loo feels like an invasion, a voyeuristic intrusion into someone’s life – in a way not to dissimilar to the Murdoch empires betrayal of privacy exposed by the Leveson enquiry. The figures on the loo tell us the viewer, the Tom peeping through the window, that this is a space we should not be entering.
Is this privacy apparent in all the paintings?
I am amazed that in Mother Wept people find the image of the man on the loo more disturbing than the image of a mother holding her screaming, perhaps dead, child. I think that says a lot about our engagement and exposure to images of grief and suffering. That said the man on the loo is distressing, clearly in the process of evacuating his bowels from two ends. I wanted to find a physical embodiment of an emotional torment, to make what was happening inside visual in the crudest of forms. It is not as if you actually see any crap or vomit, but the mere suggestion of its production seems to be enough to insight a reaction. But I am very conscious of not wanting to make work which is about sensation. Jake and Dinos Chapman do that brilliantly, as do many other artists of their generation, but it is not something I am so interested in pursuing. I am not nihilistic in that same way.
Spectacle is obviously present in some of the images of violence. I am thinking about the crucifixions scenes but also the paintings which nod to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib. Can you tell us about this political strife in the work (excuse the pun)?
I don’t want to make work which is Political with a capital “P”, and certainly have no interest in making didactic painting. But the paintings of waterboarding and the nod to the mistreatment of inmates in Abu Grabi obviously situates the work in that realm. With the waterboarding I was less interested in making a comment on the rights and wrongs of waterboarding (despite having clear personal views on this) and more interested in depicting the obvious suffering such an acts induces, regardless of whether marks are left or not. In ‘Split’ I did have the incidents at Abu Graib, involving people such as Lynndie England, in mind. But again, I was more broadly interested in depicting the type of things humans are capable of doing to each than making any explicit political comment about those incidents. ‘Pandora’ is a follow up to this, depicting what appears to be four conjoined figures emerging like a jack in a box out of the picture frame, a clear doubling of the couple conjoined in ‘Split’. I suppose my interest is less in a political agenda and more in dealing with the nature of the aesthetics of war, terror and violence in contemporary society and the manner in which we, the often detached viewer, engage in the spectacle of such images.
Tell us more about what you mean by this, in regards to the ‘spectacle of the images’.
I suppose I have Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ in mind, which whilst a Marxist ramble, is incredibly eloquent in describing and foreseeing the relationship between modern media and our consumption of imagery. Debord spoke about the role 24-hour news coverage had on us, desensitising and anaesthetising us to footage of suffering, through repetitive exposure. That problem has only got worse- through the mass of imagery and coverage through social media, the internet as a news feed, and general developments in technology, media and communication. It is the paradox of being so connected to all this suffering and simultaneously enacting a detachment. I suppose I am interested in making paintings that explore this process.
Is this not just the kind of nihilistic tendency you said you were not interested in pursuing?
I don’t think so, because I am not interested in just mirroring this process back at the viewer, but rather engaging with this process to find relevant and effective ways to re-engage a viewer. It relates to my broader interest in a question of whether Tragedy as a dramatic convention has developed processes and a lexicon which works in contemporary culture. Which is all very wishy-washy so I will try and give examples. The paintings might initially appear to be comic: odd horses, lurid colours, silly visual puns and strange cute cat -dogs. But I want this comedy and the absurdity to disarm people, which is also what I want from the clash of stylistic approaches and the staging of the scenes. So that the comedy on the surface is a device to unlock the tragedy, as if it is a key to making the viewer feel empathy. I suppose ultimately, however ridiculous the horse headed figures are, however excessive or repetitive the actions are, eventually I want them to care for the character. So that the distancing that is enacted by the process of ‘othering’ the figure, by giving it a horse head, is eventually one of the devices which makes us think, this could just as easily be me, my family, my body, my home.