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A modern intellectualism?

May 8, 2011

Kitty Hudson explores a phenomenon in contemporary art which places intellectual indeterminacy at the fore.

A new cultural phenomenon has surfaced recently: the intellectual ‘happening’.  A relation of the ‘niche’ festival, this development caters to a new thirst for knowledge and mental stimulation alongside the usual requirements of entertainment and social encounter. For instance, the Last Tuesday Society – with its reputation for decadent masked balls – has instigated the Hendrick’s Lecture Series with the aim of ‘exploring and furthering the esoteric, literary and artistic aspects of life in London and beyond.’ In this age of technology it seems that many people yearn, conversely, for the live experience – and if it works with music, why not with knowledge? It should be no surprise, then, that the popularity of The School of Life has grown in tandem with the increasing atomisation of society. Its secular ‘sermons’ bring together congregations of people keen to devote their Sundays to, as Mark Vernon has written in the Guardian, ‘spiritual ideas, demanding ideas, ideas that make a difference.’

And contemporary art, too, seems to reflect this trend.  A form of figurative allusion has appeared that might almost constitute a movement. Rather than focusing on colour and form, on making a political statement or presenting a concept, a number of artists are instead combining subtle references from history, myth and imagination. Mixed together or layered in such a way as to inspire connections in the viewers’ mind, their work leaves us questioning the significance, the pertinence to contemporary life, that is presumably hidden beneath the riddle of the images. This is modern intellectual art for our cynical age. 

Ged Quinn’s paintings offer allegory on an epic scale. The antecedents are clear: in The Fall (above) the stage set is classic Claude, while other landscapes recall Patinir, Hobbema, or the German romanticism of Friedrich. The Little Boy Who Lived in My Mouth, currently on show at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, epitomises Quinn’s fusion of incongruous elements. In a forest worthy of the nineteenth-century Barbizon landscape painters, classical mythology in the figure of Cupid, Christian symbolism, and science fiction are juxtaposed in a distinctly modern – albeit surreal – scene in which lasers appear to emanate from a scroll-crowned cloud to attack a miniature, Corbusier-esque construction. However, one quickly becomes aware of the macabre details within the superficially idyllic landscape, the ubiquitous presence of blood, of violent death and mutilation. In Heaven Everything is Fine (right) portrays Siamese twins, a guillotine and a blood-stained urinal in a picturesque ruin: what possible relationship can these elements have to one another? Myriad associations spring to mind, but it remains a disturbing enigma, tantalising as a cryptic crossword puzzle – hidden in plain sight.

Charles Avery, represented recently in British Art Show 7 at the Hayward Gallery, likewise constructs an imagined world that confounds attempts at interpretation. Though making less use of the ‘collage’ technique of Quinn, Avery’s combination of understated intellect and lively imagination sparks questions that beg to be unravelled. The Place of the Route of the If’en (left) looks deceptively normal, yet the incongruities implicit within this fantasy world demand a reconsideration of one’s preconceptions. The picture works as a theoretical playground that allows us to make of it our own utopia/dystopia.

Nancy Spero does not at once fit this mould; her recent retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery revealed no subversive utopias, but rather an interest in pattern and colour.  However, the assimilation of diverse imagery in her work seems to demand a certain level of erudition. It is easy to spot the Hellenic silhouettes, the Aztec influences – but how do they connect with the scrawled quotations from Antonin Artaud? (Indeed, why is Artaud, who is also to be seen falling from the sky in Quinn’s painting (top), so popular a source?) 

There is a clear delight common to all three artists in gathering disparate source material, following an esoteric chain of thought, to present a visually unified but intellectually bewildering whole. Much is implied in the detail, yet nothing is explained. Just as painters of religious or mythological allegories in the Renaissance assumed a prior knowledge, so these modern metaphors demand interpretation, challenging the intelligence of the viewer – but this is a trick, for there is no answer. The joy of the game lies in discovering the hidden recesses of one’s own mind.

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