Rye Holmboe: A Poetics of Dissonance
Essay from the exhibition catalogue – ‘On Falling.’
A self-professed ‘contemporary history painter,’ Tom de Freston’s artistic practice could be described as a genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present time in history. Drawing from canonical literary sources like Shakespeare and Milton, and referencing the history of painting more generally, his works reflect on the peculiar constellation of historical elements that make their emergence possible in the first place. Yet, even in works where these connections are most explicit, de Freston does not fall back on an epistemology of representation. Nor does he revel in the Romantic Scwärmerei and melodrama usually associated with history painting, or indeed with the historical novel. Instead what is so particular about de Freston’s work is the way in which certain ideas are affirmed and foregrounded in the very same act by which they are fundamentally called into question.
In a recent canvas like King Lear – End Scene (2011), for instance, a work that forms part of a series of paintings commissioned by the British Shakespeare Association, the viewer is faced not with a simple illustration, but with what one might term a semic reorganisation that responds directly to the specificity of paint. In the centre of the canvas Lear places his dead daughter Cordelia on the ground. Her hair blazes as if it were on fire. Lear himself is naked. His spine protrudes, animal-like, out of his stooped back. His face is concealed, which provides him with a certain anonymity, a point I will return to shortly. On either side of him sit a pair of identical figures, one-eyed and extra-terrestrial, their bright pink skin a strange echo of Cordelia’s dress. With legs crossed and hands clasped they appear at ease with the tragedy they behold, perhaps to the point of bathos. In the lower half of the canvas two women lie dead. They wear the same coloured dress as Cordelia and have the same coloured hair. One can assume that these two figures are Regan and Goneril, Lear’s eldest daughters, and that the four pink creatures represent Albany, Edgar, Edmund and Kent. Yet what are we to make of these pictorial signifiers: Lear’s never-revealed face; the impassive symmetry of the pink figures; Regan and Goneril’s mirrored bodies (to the point that they could almost fold into one another); and the horizontal division of the pictorial plane into two distinct halves, most of the upper half covered in a grey, sooty impasto, emphasising the materiality of the medium, the lower half gradually turning geometric, almost minimalist? On the one hand, and somewhat literally, they may suggest that Lear’s existential dissolution is undercut by a rationalised historical substrate. In today’s postmodern universe of depthless unreality the very possibility of experiencing the tragic is (and has often been) called into question. This may also go some way to explaining the anonymity of the painted figures. On the other hand, however, it does not seem farfetched to interpret the transformation of the painted surface from dense materiality to near immateriality as a symptom of the hollowness of the expressive gesture as such. Indeed, it is as if the development of the narrative in the work is undone by the steady attenuation of paint, together with the artwork’s artificial symmetry. After all, de Freston seems to say, even the most minimal expressionist shriek is still necessarily a construction. In my eyes, though, it is through this dialectical process in which the work’s aesthetic form enacts its content out – more than the subject-matter itself – that Shakespeare’s King Lear is effectively mediated into the present situation; namely, an increasingly reified society pervaded by capitalist exchange in which the very possibility of expression is deeply problematic. One might also say that it is in this moment of self referentiality and internal dissonance, in this acknowledgment of material constraints, that one really encounters the work’s truth-content, and indeed its tragedy.
A similar strategy is employed in works like This is the End (2011), The Fall of the Rebel Angels (2010) and Where the Hell Are We? (2010). In the first painting a human figure clad in red underwear and socks – which may be read as a sardonic reference to the artist himself – carries a dead woman over what could be described, paradoxically perhaps, as a depthless abyss. The central portion of the canvas, contained by two dense vertical columns of rusty-brown, is populated by hieroglyphic human figures. These are ordered in a strict pattern of three and the motif, reminiscent of William Morris, is repeated throughout the central column. The effect achieved is one of depthlessness, of crowded horizontality instead of verticality, of synchrony rather than diachrony. Unlike the Sublime moment sought in a painting like Caspar David Friedrich’s well-known Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), say, here the spatio-temporal compression and the somewhat perverse emphasis on formalism, whether it is through the emphatic serialism of the painted figures (evocative perhaps of the brash iconicity of Pop Art) or the two Rothkoesque columns, displaces the inquiry away from thematic content. As with King Lear – End Scene, the work’s construction gains expression not through its subject-matter but through its coldness, its objectivity.
This complex dialectic of expression and artifice is also present in both The Fall of the Rebel Angels (2010) and Where the Hell Are We? (2010) which, like This is the End, draw on Milton’s Paradise Lost for inspiration. In the former we encounter a pictorial vocabulary similar to the latter work, except that the two figures in the foreground are absent. The notion of ‘The Fall’ is problematised by the sense of flatness generated by the painted figures, in a manner comparable to the way in which time is brought to a stand-still in This is the End. Much the same could be said of Where the Hell Are We? where a gangly Christ-figure occupies the centre of the canvas and is surrounded by similar gravity defying figures. The dead-pan humour in this representation eliminates any last remnants of pathos we might feel for its subject. Indeed, if these are to be considered dystopian visions – and I think they should be – it is important to note that there is no sense of apocalyptic finality. Instead we are confronted with a present locked in perpetuity. In other words, the spatial logic in each of the works mentioned above undermines the temporal logic and replaces it with a simulacral sense of historicity that is quite specific to the postmodern. Pain is thereby transfigured into obstinate silence. Death is wholly absent. There is no end in sight.
But what are we to make of these cognitive paradoxes and the parodic unity of time, place and action that characterise the three works? As with King Lear – End Scene, it is arguable that the pictorial signifiers (however unfixed they are) form only part of the story. They are the subject-matter, to be sure, but the content is expressed quite differently. As the critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno once put it, ‘what works say is not what their words say’. Because the works do express something, even if the particular formal elements all contribute to a sense of depthlessness from which meaning and affect have been evacuated. But they do so negatively. In other words, it is only by virtue of their asceticism against expression that the works gain their expressivity. This is something like what Adorno meant when he wrote in his Aesthetic Theory of ‘the expressionlessness of construction that expresses the dawning powerlessness of expression.’ Troublingly, de Freston’s works show us the transition from silence to expressiveness by presenting an opposite movement: the passage from expression to silence. Like the narrator in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, the artworks fall silent in order to achieve their voice. It is for this reason that the scope of the paintings in question reaches far beyond the displayed subject-matter, whether as fabula docet or as philosophical thesis, two cornerstones of Milton’s poetics, as well as that of history painting more generally. In a manner comparable to the figures in de Freston’s works who, like Beckett’s tramps, await a grace that will never come, the works themselves are forever suspended on the brink of meaning.
The to and fro movements I have attempted to describe– fluctuations between depth and surface, silence and expressivity, the meaningful and the meaningless, to name but a few – are symptoms of works that exist in discordance with their own reality. Every idea posited, whether aesthetic or philosophical, is turned inside out, so to speak, in the fulfilment of its own logic. These negative dialectics, insofar as they remain irreducibly insolvent, can be traced to earlier works like Him Who Wanted to Fall (2009) or Swimmer of the Lethe (2009), for instance, where a grid counterbalances the materiality of paint. But, in my eyes at least, it is only in the later works, with their implied (but ossified) narratives, that we encounter the shock of the unintelligible in all its force. Whether it is through the jarring cinematic perspectives in Bathroom (2011) and The Macbeths (2011), or the semantic antinomies present in the paintings discussed above, the works gain their content through the negation of meaning. Yet it is precisely by raising social critique to the level of form that de Freston conveys the crisis of meaning integral to the reified and secularised world of latecapitalism.