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On absurdity and social satire expressed through strange realism and crowded figuration

Michael Chance

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‘My Cup Runneth Over’ — oil on canvas, 153 x 122cm

Ah, here we go again; the human condition. Bloody stupid, wonderful, awful humans.

I really did hate them for a while there, but it turns out a non-anthropocentric, object-oriented worldview is pretty tricky to maintain and possibly a little dull.
I mean, I do love rocks and waves and things. I really respect them. Maybe a rock does have some kind of consciousness, but, y’know, I’ve yet to hear one crack a joke.

Humans, however, now we’re funny.

Not just funny, but absurd.

Camus nailed it: “absurd is the confrontation of the irrational world and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart”.
I love that.

We’re both noble and ridiculous, irrepressibly searching in the face of futility.
When Sisyphus realises he exists only within a cruel joke, he doesn’t stop pushing; he rolls with it and laughs along. He doesn’t have a choice of course, but you do. But it’s laughter, or suicide, so… take your pick.

Good humour is our saving grace. It’s a sign of intelligence, of self-awareness and humility. It’s also a great levelling force.
All structures of power and authority are contingent on an absolute denial of their own absurdity.
There’s a reason monarchs claimed their power was God-given; not merely a human fiction.
Of course once people realise that God is also a human fiction, the rulers have a trickier task to justify their power and must come up with something more convincing. Their best illusion so far is Democracy (the God that shirks the blame) and The Economy (the Beast that must be fed).

The satirist uses humour to pull away the curtain, pointing out the emperor with no clothes and drawing a funny cartoon of his todger in tomorrow’s paper.
It seems the problem nowadays is that losing their robes doesn’t seem to denude their power. Some of our current politicians are already so farcical that they seem to resist parody, or rather, like a cunning martial artist, they absorb the attacks and turn them to their own benefit.
When the King starts playing Jester we get bad jokes and bad rule.
If the rich man curries favour by sharing a joke with the poor, but keeps his money and power safely locked up, this is bad, deceitful humour.

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‘Denuding’ — oil on paper, 153 x 122cm

The satirist channels a general feeling of misanthropic anger in the rightful direction (generally upwards), but is this enough?

If art can be humorously critical and political yet more than satire — more profound, nuanced, universal — then perhaps it must draw on more complex feelings than merely anger.

Thinking of satire in the context of fine art (to use a rather false distinction momentarily) brings to mind painters of the Weimar period such as Otto Dix and Georges Grosz. Picking at fresh scars, they depicted a society torn apart by the cataclysm of the first world war. Their anger and disgust engenders powerfully disturbing work, but somehow I’m left wanting something that might also offer to repair and reconstitute the social body.

Critical of capitalism and — after a revealing visit to Russia — disillusioned with communism, Grosz said, in 1924:

I no longer hate people indiscriminately… I hate their bad institutions and those in power who defend these institutions”.

Despite this thawing, his worldview still does not seem to show much redemptive goodness; he doesn’t seem able to move beyond satire by balancing bitterness with love. The sexual drive in Grosz, but especially in Dix, seems to have become so totally entwined with and perverted by violence, the brutal fantasies ofLustmörder so unforgettable, that the possibility of tenderness seems forever lost.

Max Beckmann, on the other hand, arrived at a more maturely rounded vision; both biting and warm, and ultimately, transcendent. He said, in a 1918 essay:

the only course of action that might give some purpose to our superfluous and selfish existence [is] that we give people a picture of their fate. And we can do that only if we love humanity. Actually it’s stupid to love humanity, nothing but a heap of egoism (and we are part of it too). But I love it anyway. I love its meanness, its banality, its dullness, its cheap contentment, and its oh-so- very-rare heroism. But in spite of this, every single person is a unique event, as if he had just fallen from Orion”.

The last line gives a sense of Beckmann’s cosmic sensibility, which allows him to levitate upward from the gutter to a more philosophical plane. What he gradually loses in terms of satirical specificity, he gains in mystical power. In freeing himself from the reality of street, his later paintings reach a strange imaginative kind of realism which cannot be shaken off or dismissed as propaganda; for their messages are implicit and absorbed mysteriously. We can’t quite put our finger on why, but they speak to us of society and humankind across all time; each painting is like a séance, a gathering of figures from the collective subconscious. Speaking of Beckmann’s triptych masterpieces, Timothy Hyman explains that “it is the crowding that is essential, to the point of absurdity, and out of which anything might take shape”. Crowding allows not only discontinuities of space and scale, but of temporality and content. A painting doesn’t have to illustrate one moment, seen from one point in space, it can be a riotous simultaneity of images, mythic fragments, sensualities. Out of these cracks of discontinuity can flood ideas of all sorts, strange and mundane — the challenge for the painter is to combine them and find a unity beyond bricolage. Beckmann’s greatness is in the knife-edge balance between opposites (realism and fantasy, classical poise and irrational violence, solidity of form and linear design) which are so integrated that they are unquestionable.

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‘Free Market’ — oil on paper, 153 x 122cm

Recently I have, like Beckmann, been hugely inspired by Bruegel, a master of the crowd and a great painter of human-kind, even if he’s not always kind to humans.

He combines humour and profundity, the mythic and the quotidian on an equal footing. He depicts the joys and pitfalls of peasant life with empathy, believability and a fondness which avoids any hint of patronisation. These folk may be drunken, or lascivious, or foolish at times, but they’re not evil, just human; flawed yes, but basically — or at least, potentially — good.

To the contrary, John Berger suggests that Bruegel’s paintings present a specific condemnation of a failure endemic to all mankind: “the charge he wanted brought is indifference”.
I’m not sure I agree.
Yes, people are shown as generally self-interested, but who can blame them, after all they have their own suffering and worries (never mind some silly bloke called Icarus, or a passing prisoner struggling with a cross). Perhaps to our eyes they can seem cruel to gawp at a public execution, or loot and massacre as soldiers. But the fact is, they are active; they are out in the world taking part in a collective story. Surely true indifference would be asocial; the landscape would be empty, everyone holed up at home with the curtains drawn.

It is people’s very interest in and allegiance to something larger than themselves which is harnessed for good or ill. If they are cruel, they are being directed by cruel social or religious norms which are hard to perceive from within. It takes the elevated and panoramic vision of an artist like Bruegel to hold a large enough mirror to society, revealing to the individual his place within the larger horror, awakening a sense of social responsibility and autonomy. Breugel must have intended his paintings to have such an effect since they do so powerfully stir one’s compassion.

The massing of figures not only summons a critical image of society, it’s enormously fun and creative. One figure suggests another, two figures suggest a relationship, a third creates tension, and so on. Glances and gestures keep the eye zipping around from one to another, interpreting relational motivations, passions, accusations, desires, anxieties. Society is a hugely complex puzzle; confusing and frustrating but governed by some underlying logic that hints at the possibility of its eventual — or at least partial — solving.

In contrast, the gleefully cruel fantasies of his forerunner Hieronymus Bosch seemingly invite the viewer to pull up a chair, open a beer and enjoy the freakshow. It seems that while Bruegel sits on the cusp of a progressive humanism, with Bosch we’re winding back the clock to a time when human society did not claim to determine it’s own fate; it was subject to a host of supernatural forces and creatures with their own unknowable motivations.

However, although he may seem to dwell in a world of magic we no longer recognise, his message is every bit as relevant today as Bruegel’s. After all, do we not all feel at some point as if we are powerless, subject to the whim of bizarrely monstrous tyrants or intangible, invisible forces? Would Trump be out of place in Bosch’s menagerie?

While this may be true, Bosch is much more than merely a darkly ludic puppeteer and his worldview is relevant not only for its surface absurdity, but something deeper. John Berger suggests that:

“if Bosch’s vision of hell is prophetic, the prophecy is not so much in the details — haunting and grotesque as they are — but in the whole. Or, to put it another way, in what constitutes the space of hell.”

This space is created by the masses of figures distributed across a landscape without horizon and the relations between them, or rather, the very lack of sensible relations:
“there is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past, and no future. There is only the clamour of the disparate, fragmentary present”. Like our world today, it is a “wretched puzzle” whose pieces will never fit together.
Bosch’s hell is intensely claustrophobic, not just through crowding, but because there is “no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise”.
As described by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism, we live in an Eternal Now, where Francis Fukuyama’s claim that neoliberal capitalism represents the end of history is accepted as norm, and in which it is impossible to imagine a future organised any differently than the present. We are imprisoned within an ideology that mythologises itself as a given.
As Frederic Jameson famously quipped, “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. At the moment it seems that the world may well spiral to its end by capitalism exponentially doubling down on itself; through a perpetual failure of imagination.
Perhaps this is where the artist comes in. This doesn’t necessarily mean the artist’s responsibility is to visualise an alternative utopia over the horizon; only that they might step far enough back from the present situation that it’s contradictions and arbitrariness are visible, that it is revealed for what it is; an absurd myth taking itself way too seriously.
While Bosch focuses on the surreal absurdity itself and the weirdly enticing monstrousness of extreme punitive power, Bruegel shows the consequences of absurd power as it is actually wielded in the real world. I find both inspiring, but for this reason, Bruegel’s vision is ultimately more moving and harder to ignore.

Even his epic landscape of horror, ’The Triumph of Death’ seems a work of realism to me. Every corpse feels seen and every killing feels a natural inevitability. Crucially, man is not set upon by supernatural creatures, winged or horned devils, but by skeletons; the evil comes not from without, but within. This is not fantasy, but reality shorn of its illusions.

That Bruegel’s vision gains power for its realism and Beckmann’s for its mysticism is not necessarily a contradiction: the key is that they both strike a powerful balance, some kind of strange realism.

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‘St Martin’s Day’ — conte on paper

Of course most of these thoughts have come after the fact. They were in my head somehow, but in making this series of paintings I really dwelt upon only a couple of formal ideas.

Often inspiration starts with a small thing seen differently, as if for the first time. When I recently came across a sketch made several years ago — a small detail from Breugel’s ‘The Wine of St. Martin’s Day’, I felt that this could be a key. It became a talisman.

I realised that when figures fill the picture, our perspective becomes uncertain (are we looking down, or across?) and the airiness of space is almost entirely squeezed out, remaining only in little pockets and folds between forms, akin to a relief sculpture.
An arm or a head can emerge from the mass at any point and doesn’t have to fit ‘properly’ onto a body in naturalistic posture, instead, it emerges for the sake of the composition.

Crammed together, built atop one another, figures in a crowd don’t exist as monumental forms placed in a three dimensional space like a piece on a chess board; instead they overlap and intertwine, creating confusion and ambiguity. Noticing this provided me with a much-needed liberation from my own tendency for perspectival literalism, pushing me towards deliberately dealing with pictorial space as the prime concern, perhaps for the first time.

‘Quantitative Easing’ — oil on canvas, 55x45cm

Looking to break the hold of the illusionistic, perspectival picture space — the picture plane as window to a world beyond — I was inspired by Hans Belting’s mention (via Julian Bell) of the mashrabiyya,the Islamic lattice window, which scrambles the visual field; the world visible only as glimpses between lines of pattern. However, while the mashrabiyya “tames the gaze and purifies it of all sensuous external images”, I sought the opposite; to encourage the viewer’s eye to rove hungrily across suggestive, plastic forms.

I realised that in Beckmann’s work, almost akin to a stained glass window, it is the black outlines that create an overall pattern and a strong sense of design, whilst leaving form remarkably intact, and even intensified. So, making these paintings I was mindful of outlines connecting, forming a lattice across the whole surface, hopefully creating a tension from edge to edge, corner to corner.

Holding these formal goals in mind, I launched into a series of paintings with unplanned content; I trusted that whatever these figures are up to, whoever they are, they will always end up expressing my worldview: both silly and serious, switching from social satire to my most personal feelings.

The crowd is many, but they are also me.

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‘Gimme Shelter’ — oil on paper, 153 x 122cm

Nudge Nudge Wink Wink is open 18th-28th October 2018 at Mercer Chance Gallery in Hoxton, London.

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