Brendan McGorry and The Belle Epoque
Art New Zealand - Winter 2018 Essay by Michael Wilson
The Death of Painting... As a beginning art student, I was fond of taunting anyone who still insisted on wielding a brush and pigment with the possibility—nay , the inevitability—of their chosen medium’s imminent and deserved demise. At the time—the cusp of the 1990s—standing at an easel felt to me like the last thing any forward-thinking artist should be doing, though of course I had little to propose in the way of viable alternatives (at least any I yet knew how to carry out). In short, I was young and in love with extreme ideas, so the potential end of an entire way of working tickled me no end. It's always with some residual amusement, then, that I notice this particular notion now crop up again from time to time. And it was with some surprise that I clocked the phrase in the titles of recent work by Auckland artist Brendan McGorry. A painter.
McGorry’s canvas The Death of Painting (2016) is a reworking of John Everett Millais’ pre-Raphalite classic Ophelia (1851), and instantly recognised image of decorative, romanticised morbidity. But the artist has not simply appropriated the earlier image as glib conceptual strategy, he has really worked at it, arriving at something much more involved than either a straight copy or a self-conscious critical quotation. A remix, perhaps. In McGorry’s painting, the pale gown of the original work’s floating subject has become a tie died riot of colour. Similarly, her flowing hair has gone from brunette to Manic Panic mix of electric hues, decisively jettisons the expected Shakespearian styling to shift the scene into the present. Both paintings luxuriate in fine detail, but McGorry's approach is far from Millais’ painstakingly attempt at illusionary naturalism. His scene has a deliberate flatness, an reliance on and delight in surface pattern and material translucency that reminds us of the pictures’ object status.
In The Burial of Painting after Millais and The Assumption of Painting (both 2016), McGorry pulls similar interpretive stunts with two more Victorian originals: another Millais (The Vale of Rest 1858-59) and John William Waterhouses’ The Lady of Shallot (1888). Again, each image is given a flickering Technicolor makeover, the more-or-less realistic look of the earlier works displaced by an almost hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic shimmer. McGorry’s panels have a visionary quality that takes the strangeness of the Pre-Raphaelites and runs with it, relocating each scene to an old alternative perceptual and narrative realm. Theres a commentary on the operation of memory in them to, a set of ideas about the ways in which we jettison most of any given scene in order to emphasise selected parts, burnishing them until they assume an almost visible significance. Even the odd bit of raw linen that shows through the works’ drawn-and-painted surfaces hints at a process of selection that may or may not be under its makers’s conscious control.
'The Burial of Painting’ after Millais 2016,
charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 1885 x 1200mm
Far from looking forward to the end of painting, then, McGorry is an artist in love with the medium’s entire life cycle, positioning it as a history that repeats itself endlessly in variations appropriate to the here and now. (Its also a craft, of course, a practise with its own diversity of physical techniques with the capacity to be influenced by technological moves without ever being entirely displaced by them.) Although partly self taught, McGorry is acutely aware of art as both narrative and discipline, and often makes reference to European painting, especially the Italian Renaissance masters (he spent some time in Italy studying Renaissance frescos). But these allusions do not stand alone in the artist’s oeuvre; they are connected to his own family’s story, and to the way people and events in our lives can seem to repeat themselves or balance each other out in unanticipated ways. Art Historian Warren Feeney has compared this sensitivity to the rhizomatic patterning of life with the short stories of Anton Chekov; we might equally think of the architecture of love and remembrance in Proust.
For a deeper understanding or this very particular combination of aims and resonances, it is worth taking a look at The Belle Epoque Project (2014), a cycle of paintings in which McGorry riffs on the Parisian Impressionists. Here, in addition to putting the originals through his aesthetic filter, the artist has added some judicious contemporary touches, updating the central figures in his take on the Folies Bergere, for example. to further underscore the ceaseless bearing away of the present onto the past. But McGorry’s use of extant images here is more continuation than critique, an acknowledgement of the persistence of memory as well as the transience of life. ‘I see my work as being based on three intersecting threads of history,’ he confirms with admirable concision, ‘personal history and genealogy, social and biological evolution, and art history’. It’s this breadth of range-and crucially, the awareness that outwardly diverse subjects are always already interconnected-that makes the artists work so rich.
'Frances at the Folie Bergere' 2014,
acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 1200 x 1500mm
In a 2015 essay, curator Steph Chalmers stresses that McGorry’s irreverent approach to the history of his field-one in which, in true post modern fashion, all histories can come to seem equivalent -is more than just an academic game, but has a powerfully human, even humanitarian, dimension. ‘His work seems to question whether humankind continues to evolve on a positive course’ she observes. ‘Have we passed our peak of intellectual growth and are we now devolving? McGorry asks us to consider, on a personal level, our time and place in social evolution. Are we good people? It is bracing to find an artist still willing to confront such fundamental ideas and questions-and a relief to find one doing so without abandoning the possibility of visual pleasure.
Exploring how McGorry’s work has continued to adopt this particular interrogative stance, Chalmers describes the artist’s contribution to 2011’s Auckland Art Week, an interactive installation titled God’s little Launderette. This drawing-covered ‘chapel-come-laundry-come-interactive-board game’ offered visitors the opportunity to ponder the arbitrary nature of existence, giving them the chance to ‘play, pray, and be cleansed’ through open ended recreation.
‘Gods Little Launderette‘ 2011, White Night Auckland Arts Festival
Another temporary installation, 2013’s Here we are now, took the form or a canvas tent decorated with drawings based on impressionist masterpieces. In the artist’s imagined scenario, this was a shelter constructed from the ruins of the Musee d Orsay in a dystopian future Paris. Its interior had a different look, inscribed with less refined images that echo a collapse of order and reason that continues to unfold outside.
'Here we are now‘ 2013, Wallace Trust Pah Homestead
Asked where such interests might have originates, McGorry points to art-world precedents such as the abstract expressionists and the CoBrA of the 1940s and early 50s. But he also takes paints point to various forms of more or less untutored or deskilled practise: ‘art that doesn’t care for the rules of picture making, Dubuffet and art brut, children’s art’. He also returns to biological history, discussing his decision to track his personal genealogy, then to satisfy that curiosity further still by having genetic markers tracked aback some 100,000 years to Africa via the National Geographic Geographic Project, a research initiative launched in 2005 that uses emergent technologies to analyse historical patterns in DNA, with the aim of better understanding our shared roots. ‘I find biological evolution and the evolution of social universals fascinating,’ he writes, ‘as you start with the end and try to find the path back.’
This kind of looping journey, with all its extraordinary range and profundity, also crops up in three short videos that document the artist’s installation projects The Persistence of Time (2011), Holy of Holies and Mangled Destiny (2013). In the first, McGorry’s Sculptural take on the ‘tree of life’ traces biological history back to the first cell, a model train endlessly cycling a slab of wood inscribed with a detailed evolutionary chart. In the second film, which records an installation produced for NZ Sculpture on Shore, Fort Takapuna, the construction of a temple to the axolotl pays elaborate homage to the evolutionary snapshot that these animals represent. The third video records another installation, this one constructed inside an old coastal defence bunker, which focuses on the violent side of human DNA-our persistent tendency to massacre our neighbours-and explores how the larger process of evolution is thus not entirely an internal shift, but also a violent conflict between species.
Skip ahead five years and Noir, McGorry’s recent exhibition at Sanderson Contemporary, again sees him taking an installation artist’s approach to painting and drawing, designing the entire space of the show as opposed to simply hanging pictures on its walls. But where Here we are now for example was born in part from a reading of Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian and The Road (an experience that tinged the artist’s imagery with horror), Noir exhibits slightly more inward-looking tone suggested by its title-the conflict here is between individuals. While arguably symptomatic of particular social ills, the grouping takes a step back from the apocalyptic scenarios of the earlier works. Conjuring a morally ambiguous mood these scenes invite us, in the manner of the school of filmmaking for which they are named, to piece together a series of interlocking narratives from visual clues scattered across multiple setttings. ‘the first four works in the show, The Suit, The Sailor, The Player, and The Waitress, ‘ confirms McGorry ‘introduce the characters and can be read like the beginning of a play or the rolling credits at the start of a classic movie.’
In addition to referencing other paintings, each of these see new works fills out a story, suggesting relationships between the suit and the sailor (Two of a Kind) and between the waitress and the hotel (Hotel Noir), while two concluding images, Good Evening and Good Night, construct an appropriately cinematic ending by zooming in on a key location. As he continues to do with art-historical images, McGorry here performs an act of redemption, returning the art of storytelling to artistic centre stage. In paintings such as Scene Toulouse Lautrec (2018), there is not only reference to the named artist, but also a touch of a psychological drama unique to this interpretation, the variegated surfaces of McGorry’s painting seeming to connote a roiling emotional landscape. Even when the characters depicted are recognisable, their treatment hints at an attempt to veil something unsavoury beneath a shifting exterior (think of the scramble suit in Philip K. Dicks A Scanners Darkly, which allows the wearer to disguise him-or herself beneath an ever-changing membrane). Like the artist himself, they are always familiar, always new.
Brooklyn Based Michael Wilson is International Arts Editor for Vice