A naked man with the head of a horse copulates with a cadaverous woman. This scene from Tom de Freston’s painting Jove’s Lost Rape (2009) suggests a lurid caricature of Correggio’s coy depictions of the Loves of Jupiter from the 1530s. Yet it incorporates other far-flung allusions which preclude any straightforward reading. The horse’s head, for instance, is that of the tortured creature in Picasso’s Guernica (1937), while the retreating figures of Adam and Eve are pick-pocketed directly from Masaccio’s fresco The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c. 1425). Is this a metaphor for the awakening of shame after the Fall, or an image of scripture itself fleeing in the face of a debauched bacchanal? The scene’s import remains as inscrutable as the hollow-eyed visages of its carnal protagonists.

Both in its macabre subject and elusive allusions, Jove’s Lost Rape prefigures de Freston’s most recent series from 2011 and 2012. His latest works are largely populated by figures similar to Jove, with human bodies and cartoonish equine heads (again, they echo the maniacal expression of the horse in Guernica – wide eyes, flaring nostrils, bladelike tongue). These paintings are loosely themed around Gustav Meyrink’s 1914 novel The Golem, set in fin de siècle Prague. But rather than illustrating specific episodes, they conjure otherworldly illusions of the kind experienced by the book’s central character, Athanasius Pernath, in which known characters and settings assume an uncanny (what Freud termed unheimlich) quality. A dreamlike atmosphere, at once familiar and foreign, is the defining characteristic of the series.

And so in Liminal Lives, we encounter a ‘man-stallion’ holding a swooning ‘woman-mare’ in front of open French doors. Their poses at once echo the Pietà, the culminating scene of a tragic drama, and the romantic cliché of man carrying woman across a threshold. But these resonances are at odds with the painting’s bizarre cast of animal-human hybrids (or ‘horse-men’), and with such incongruous details as the dagger which dangles from the female character’s hand.

A similar fusion of the familiar and the enigmatic underpins de Freston’s mises-en-scène. These often take the form of a tightly-enclosed arena with a checkerboard floor (or patio) and simply-delineated windows and doors. Such settings evoke a suburban home, but also dismantle the very distinctions between indoor and outdoor, or between confinement and boundlessness – moons and lamps become interchangeable, and simple black backdrops hint at infinite voids.

De Freston likens his paintings’ polyvalent motifs and settings to the ambiguities in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). Here, it is unclear whether the man who gazes out across a mountainous immensity, his back to the viewer, is Friedrich himself or someone else, and whether the place is real or imagined (or, at least, half-imagined). Recalling Friedrich’s composition, Struts and Frets depicts a horse-man tottering at the edge of a platform before a maroon sky, wielding the broken dagger which recurs throughout this series of works. It suggests an animal version of Macbeth (“Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?”) or any account of a murderous, rampaging figure. Indeed, the creature’s apparent despair is surely that of a ‘character in search of a narrative’, or of the deranged King Lear (to invoke another Shakespearean tragic hero) who demands, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”. Like a misplaced prop, the dagger serves to render him more, rather than less, ambiguous: he is a cypher going through the motions of a role he doesn’t understand.

These multiple motifs engender multiple moods, and the paintings frequently strike a note of bathos. In Warhorse, ghoulish and saucer-eyed cats lap from bowls, undercutting the melodrama of the scene at large in which a fallen horse-man flails wildly on the floor. The cats furnish a metaphor for the blithe continuation of life in the face of momentous events – a notion memorably expressed by WH Auden in his imagining of horrific martyrdoms “Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree”. De Freston draws a revealing parallel between his cats and the dainty lapdog in Titian’s painting The Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1575) which licks at the flayed centaur’s blood. The various notes of violence and dark comedy in this image of “martyrdom” closely match de Freston’s own disjunctive moods.

In this way, de Freston’s paintings conjure a parallel world that is half-familiar and half-alien. In his 1919 essay ‘The “Uncanny”’, Freud proposes that “the quality of uncanniness can only come from the fact of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since surmounted – a stage, incidentally, at which it wore a more friendly aspect.” Often, the “friendly aspect” of de Freston’s canvases (namely, their cartoonish element – the horses are not unlike the character of Donkey in the Shrek films) is marred by overtones of abjection and violence. In the same way, Titian’s spectre of a strung-up satyr, fanciful as the theme may be, conveys an all-too-real suffering.

At the same time, the notion of the double is embedded thematically in the paintings. In Warhorse, the central catastrophe of a horseman lying on a patio, dagger in a hand, is witnessed by an internal audience – a counterpart to the painting’s external viewer. This figure in a blue tracksuit with cartoon eyes and a gaping blank mouth, is itself repeated behind each pane of the closed French doors.

De Freston’s settings tellingly evoke stage-sets, themselves counterfeit doubles of reality; he comments, “the spaces in the paintings are very much stage sets – they’re rarely looking to be like real spaces”. The full moons which frequently appear, for instance, are elliptical – encouraging us to read them as flat pieces of scenery. Moreover, the horse-men themselves suggest pawns or surrogates unthinkingly ‘playing a part’ (compare the moment in Vergil’s Aeneid where the goddess Juno creates a hologram of the hero, turning a cloud “into the shape of Aeneas … She gave to it words never real, sound without thought”). The lines of stitches on the bodies of de Freston’s figures (including the cats) pointedly imply that they are replicas or ‘skinjobs’ – men disguised as horse-men.

Such a notion of self-displacement and ‘self-doubling’ arises in an episode in The Golem where Athanasius Pernath experiences a vision in which he encounters Rosina, the local fourteen-year-old prostitute. Ordinarily he finds the girl repulsive – bony, animalistic, rapacious. Yet in this hallucination, he follows her into a room where to his horror he witnesses himself having sex with her. The scene is sensationally re-imagined in de Freston’s painting Rosina, the only work which gives explicit treatment to an episode from the novel. Here, the figures’ human bodies are topped not by horses’ heads but by graphic, disk-like simplifications of faces (Rosina’s is reduced to a harelip and cross-eyes floating on a creamy ellipse). As if in reflection of Pernath’s horror at his obscene vision, the figures’ genitals are shrouded in a dark blur.
Pernath’s doubled self is therefore a ‘mirror image’ in the twin senses of a simulacrum and a nauseating inversion. His vision finds a close equivalent in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Despair (1934), in a scene where the delusional narrator Hermann manages to induce an out-of-body experience while making love to his wife – an episode which could easily be imagined occurring in one of de Freston’s pink-tinctured settings:

“The dissociation had now reached its perfect phase. I sat in an armchair half a dozen paces away from the bed upon which Lydia had been properly placed and distributed. From my magical point of vantage I watched the ripples running and plunging along my muscular back, in the laboratorial light of a strong bed-lamp that picked out a mother-of-pearl glint in the pink of her knees and a bronze gleam in her hair spread on the pillow.”

Hermann’s delight at being able to objectify himself contrasts diametrically with Pernath’s horror when he undergoes the same experience. The two episodes evince the way in which out-of-body experiences tend towards either a transcendental ideal or an obscenity. The various forms of doubling in de Freston’s paintings produce echoes, whether noisy or faint, of these antithetical extremes of ecstasy and horror.

If de Freston’s paintings deal in illusory doubles, they also – by contrast – present instances of the dispelling of illusion, of disillusionment. Still haven’t found what I’m looking for is based on the opening of The Golem where the narrator, who has been reading a book on the Buddhist teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, falls asleep:

I had been reading about the life of the Buddha before I went to bed, and one passage kept on running through my mind in a thousand variations, going back to the beginning again and again:

“A crow flew to a stone which looked like a lump of fat, thinking perhaps it had found something good to eat. But when the crow found that it was not good to eat, it flew off. Like the crow that went to the stone, so do we—we, the tempters—leave Gautama, the ascetic, because we have lost our pleasure in him.”

And the image of the stone that looked like a lump of fat grew in my mind to enormous dimensions.

De Freston reinterprets the crow’s ‘loss of pleasure’ or moment of disillusionment in an image of a bird-man hybrid teetering at the precipice of a cloudy abyss reminiscent of Friedrich’s ‘sea of fog’ (de Freston has assailed the canvas with dripping white glaze which dually suggests spattered household paint and steaming geysers). The figure’s stance deftly expresses the moment at which illusion evaporates. It seems at once ready to leap and hesitating, as if undergoing a deadening realisation. There is a faint echo here of the impossible posture of Yves Klein in his photograph Leap into the Void (1960), taking flight and plummeting in the same moment.
The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips observes that the most interesting things occur when people are off balance or in some sense lose their balance: “it’s about failure. It’s very powerful when you feel that the dancers could fall over. It’s as though failure will make the audience feel something they can’t bear to feel … the audience could feel abjectly helpless against its will.” The same sense of abject helplessness permeates Still haven’t found what I’m looking for. The awkwardness of the bird-man’s ambivalent pose, half-falling and half-flying, indeed compresses the discordant notes of soaring optimism and tragic downfall associated with classical figures such as Icarus or Phaethon.
The crow’s misidentification of the stone as fat also finds a revealing parallel in the Greek myth of Zeuxis and Parhassius, which similarly ends in dispiriting disillusionment. According to the legend, these rival artists vied to surpass one another in trompe l’oeil painting; Zeuxis’s painting of grapes induced birds to peck at it, but Parhassius trumped Zeuxis by making him believe that there was a curtain in front of Parhassius’s painting (in fact, another illusion produced by painting). There is once more an instance of Freudian ‘uncanniness’ in Zeuxis’s experience before Parrhasius’s painted curtain and his “split-second calibration of reality” as he apprehends its artifice. De Freston’s hybrid figures likewise induce viewers to ‘recalibrate’ what they see; a momentary glance at the paintings indicates that they are populated by human figures – staggering, sprawling, gesticulating – before we apprehend their non-human attributes.

De Freston’s hybrid figures compress many of the the splits and dualisms which run through the Golem paintings. Of these figures he remarks, “there’s nothing in The Golem which would suggest the horse images” – but there are general nightmarish scenes … Hopefully this half-monstrous thing will be real and believable.” Indeed, the essence of the canvases is their equivocation – their half-monstrous and half-absurd, or half-mirthful and half-melancholic, character.
The horse-men are composites, unheroic centaurs. Before these creatures, we experience the shock of self-recognition (the same shock felt by Pernath in his vision) – of ourselves reflected back as perversions or monstrosities. And yet their base aspect is intermingled with a kind of nobility. ‘Human’ and ‘animal’ attributes are indistinctly swapped; while the human bodies at times appear feeble, the horses’ heads conversely evoke the magnificent creatures of Rubens’s battle paintings.
We find this this kind of displacement of attributes in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) when Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms – talking horses who live an idealised, heroic, Spartan-style existence. Here, humans (or “Yahoos”) are an abject, mute race of despised subordinates: Gulliver relates, “My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure”. Gulliver measures his own degeneracy (and rationality) against these extremes – idealised horses and debased humans. Rosina dramatises this very experience of reluctantly recognising oneself as a repellent ‘other’, which all of de Freston’s recent canvases induce in the viewer.

In de Freston’s paintings, the contrasting figures of Houyhnhnm and Yahoo are merged. As in Gulliver’s Travels, the hybrid quality of the horse-men lies at the heart of their note of satire. The critic Lee Morrissey has noted in relation to Gulliver’s Travels that “there is a long-standing association between the mode of satire and a Greek mythological figure, the Satyr, half-human and half-animal.” Satire arises from the half-real scenario, from doing things by halves. On occasion, de Freston’s scenarios produce the same effect as sitcoms, in whose improbable narratives and social caricatures we nonetheless identify our lives and ourselves. In Warhorse – which half evokes a suburban mishap (a drunken figure, perhaps, sprawled on a garden patio), and half evokes a horse falling on a racetrack – de Freston conflates the lofty with the laughable. The scene is pathetic in both senses of the word – tragic and trivial.

The religious historian Mercea Eliade notes, “symbolism does not depend on being understood … [Symbolic meanings] make up a symbolic system which in a sense pre-existed them all”. It is a remark which pertains well to de Freston’s constellations of allusions and recurring motifs. Original contexts and connotations glimmer only faintly – half-visible – in the same way as the Crucifixion haunts Francis Bacon’s paintings as a trope drained of its original significance. De Freston’s allusions thus function as ghosts, summoning forth a host of artistic voices, while resisting fixed meaning. (In Warhorse, the swooping, bird-headed figures in the right-hand portion of the image are themselves appropriately redolent of phantoms attending on the scene). The paintings present an uncanny and quixotic world akin to a hallucination, yet with all the emotional lurches and contrasts of lived experience. In this way it holds up a tragicomic and satirical mirror to human lives – pathetic, base, noble, lewd, deluded.