These are troubled times. Each era brings its own difficulties, while the weight of history becomes harder to bear – and Britain in 2020 is arguably epitomised by Dan Llywelyn Hall’s portrait of Nigel Farage being unveiled by Jim Davidson. Now there is an image to contemplate. In Empire Hangover, Dan Cimmermann presents a timely reminder of an uncomfortable aspect of British history, referencing portraiture of our colonising past. These paintings are symbols of power and control – not only of ruling other people’s waves, but also of an elite class that sets the political agenda while the majority can only stand and watch, disenfranchised.
Cimmermann begins with eight large paintings – four colour, four black and white – which have portraiture as their starting point. The dark green of the gallery wall gives them an immediate Farrow & Ball gravitas, as though they’re in a museum with the extra reverence that demands. These paintings have a sense of history at their core, and their surfaces lay bare their own history of alteration, partial removal, and addition. The colour paintings are a dizzying assault of techniques, motifs and references. Strong and Stable is full to bursting with information. It is a spectacularly visceral overload – rococo and then some. Only the left eye, an earring and pearl necklace are clearly left from what we assume was the painting’s first iteration before all the tagging, doodling and dashes of paint. A guess that it was of a countess may not be wide of the mark. Enough clues remain – the elaborate wig of the day is subsumed by tiny cartoon faces and abstract dabs of colour. The right eye has been replaced by a googly eye and the pair of cherry lips is straight out of Looney Tunes. On the one hand it is irreverent, dark in its defacement on the other. Its neighbour, Yorkshire Tea, is less frenzied with more of a pop art sensibility, though retaining a barely suppressed anger in some of its mark-making. Cimmermann has allowed more of this original portrait to survive, although it looks to have survived an attempt to be rubbed out.
Of the large black and white portraits, Western and Nail-biter make a fascinating comparison. Western is the quieter of the two and contains deft modelling of the facial features of who we presume is a young nobleman or naval captain. Thin lines of a twisted perspective are drawn over the top and sgraffito (a scratching technique) disrupts the surface, revealing earlier layers of oil paint and reasserting the picture plane. Nail-biter, by contrast, depicts a manic character with a technique befitting the agitated mental state of its subject. The profile shifts like flickering futurism, supported by a stylised, nervous hand; one eye stares, the other is barely there. Zig-zagging brushmarks suggest and obliterate form, and the tension is palpable.
The second section of the exhibition features over twenty small ink drawings of heads set against a line-drawn mural of a tropical lagoon. All the heads face left and are drawn with great intensity – half extended doodle, half exploratory exercise in analytical cubism – and the piece is part installation, part collection. So little is certain here.
A huge, loosely-painted skull covers the next wall of the gallery. A portrait of sorts, there is no attempt by the artist to disrupt or distort the image on this occasion, leaving a stark statement on mortality – when the chess game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.
The show ends with a series of smaller portraits, hanging on a wall painted a rich, red earth, the colour of fine art. Sketchier and fragmented in appearance, enough signs are apparent to imply the subjects’ standing in society. Some are in profile, like the Queen on a postage stamp, their identity redacted by scrapes of thick paint. In others, paint almost completely takes over and the iconoclasm is a whisker away from abstraction.
The works in this impressive and thought-provoking show contain multiple points of difference – the Posca pen, the street artist’s weapon of choice, sits alongside sumptuous swathes of oil paint. It’s scattergun, eclectic. Nothing is fixed, everything is open for discussion and re-interpretation – reflecting what it is to live, and be aware, right now, to submit to a barrage of signifiers and stimuli from every conceivable angle.
The exhibition is open on Fridays and Saturdays, 10am-5pm, and by appointment.
All work will be for sale – contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information on works, pricing, or to arrange an appointment.
Friday 31st January, 6:30pm-late, free – no need to book
The bar will be open on the night.
- Words by
- Sean Williams