Exiles presents recent works by painter and art historian Tom de Freston. This current exhibition boasts an illustrious and worthy list of supporters, and the work on display is clearly critical and intelligent. Yet it’s also true that sex, melodrama and comedy reoccur in de Freston’s work with frequency and intensity. There’s a gravity to de Freston’s choice of themes and concepts that is at odds with the frivolity of his handling – light splashes of red and pink paint over figures engaged in acts of brutality, arcane rituals, and unorthodox sexual couplings. In his smaller pieces and drawings, this spontaneous, unfinished character compounds the intimacy of the scene presented; in larger works it creates an unsettling effect. Repainted scenes from the kama sutra, acts of bestiality, and nudes abducted from some of Western art history’s most famous paintings people his oeuvre. In an untitled triptych on view in this exhibition, his parodic re-workings of nudes by Titian and Manet reveal his encyclopedic and irreverent approach to art history. Borrowed wholesale and forced onto the surface of the painting without support or context, these floating nudes represent a disenfranchised eroticism.
de Freston’s handling of the nude is particularly interesting, since he treats both male and female subjects, a rare conjunction. And this is crucial to understanding how eroticism functions in his work. Sexuality is used to explore gender identity; not to excite the viewer. The violence of the wrestling figures in Untitled, seemingly an excessively macho foil to the delicate female nudes, are underscored with a neon-pink which exposes the latent homoeroticism of their struggle. This exploration of masculinity reappears in Last of the Seducer, in which he transmutes the suffering of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa into the melancholy of failed romance. The figures which occupy his paintings seem uneasy with their own sexual identities, lacking the self-possession needed to be sexually enticing – what we’re presented with instead is an alienation from sex, an exile from eroticism into a primal sexuality which is both visceral and distopian. The discordance of the Venus de Willendorf amongst the hallowed nudes is the signifier for this bizarre encounter between sexuality and its discontents. By borrowing from art history and conflating epochs, de Freston forces his figures to be ahistorical, allowing us to imagine them playing out their dramas continuously, without respite or reprise. His eroticism is knowingly intellectualised, functioning within a self-reflexive framework of irony and painterliness. The visceral nature of the images comes through technique and juxtaposition, rather than from a sexual frisson, making them uncanny – emphasised both by the dislocation of these most famous beauties from their proper contexts, and their oblivion to the scenes of violence unfolding behind them, one of which recalls Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. The grand narratives of history, the bible, and Greco-Roman myth are treated with an anachronistic disregard, just as they are in Jove’s Lost Rape, which features a centaurian sexual predator who is one part Old Testament, one part Zeus, and one part Guernica. Yet instead of being grandiose, the end result is laughable. This kind of bathos is key to de Freston’s work. Sodom, for instance, shows a man, naked from the waist down – a defiant and ridiculous figure – standing before a huge triptych decorated with scenes of animalistic, bacchanalian excess. In his own words, de Freston’s treatment of sex is “neither solely pious and philosophical nor crude and pornographic. Both terms are inadequate – the central terms that unites both extremes is poetry.”