Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Dystopia in Toyland

  In one pixelated news-image of the aftermath of the recent Paris shootings, Bataclan concert-hall is shown as a charnel-house of bloody corpses wrapped in body-bags, a venue dedicated to the hedonistic enjoyment of music transformed into a nightmarish vision from Dante’s Inferno. While we all share a common revulsion at the perpetrators of this massacre (who apparently may have been less hardline religious fanatics than disaffected young chomeurs high on drugs), is there not a sense in which our culture has become increasingly habituated to such imagery and that in the 24/7 media-feed which saturates our imaginations horror and hedonism, bloodshed and consumerism are surreally interfused, as though they exist as two sides of the same greedily-grasped coin?
    Equally, fact and fiction have imploded and (as Norman Mailer wrote many years ago), “Reality is no longer realistic”. The scenes at Bataclan are the savage end-product of the gun-violence regularly celebrated in thrillers and action-movies but never shown in all its gory, unglamorous brutality. Turn on the Breakfast Show and our warped morality, all but numbed to genuine empathy, regards juxtaposed features on novelty Xmas jumpers and female genital mutilation with the same complacent engrossment.
   Garth Bowden’s new paintings address this conflicted visual-field by asking us to reassess our position as innocent or privileged bystanders, instead plunging us dizzily into the ethical dilemmas that surround us all today. While superficially referencing a mash-up of artistic sources – neo-Pop, the messy Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning and Pollock, even the visceral impact of early Francis Bacon – these large canvases immediately draw the eye in with their bright, hectic colour-patterns and apparently playful, half-comical imagery. However, this bricolage of cartoon whimsy belies a darker subtext, its characters compressed uncomfortably into each other so that they merge and mutate into distorted chimera. What’s more, red spatterings criss-cross the paintings and undercut the frivolity of the faces crowding in on us, as though the horror-mannequin Chucky has gone on a knife-spree through the cast of Fantasia.
   These bold and bizarre works, effectively capturing the paradoxes of a culture adrift between disneyfied banality and murderous dehumanisation, were created as a response to the Paris shootings by an artist with strong links both to the city and his adoptive homeland of France. If “artists are the antennae of their race” (as Ezra Pound suggested) they could be said to be both emotionally timely and – as a warning against perpetuating the cycle of violence through retaliatory bombings – politically resonant.  They build on themes and strategies that Bowden has obsessively returned to throughout his career and represent a new resolve to explore broader events through the lens of his ambitious personal vision.
  Exhibition Notes for The Silent Crowd, new paintings by Garth Bowden which were shown at Brick Lane Gallery in December 

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