An urban dystopia

Jessica McBride is impressed by modern uses of a traditional medium at Recoat Gallery.

Those who lament that painting is of little importance in art today will be satisfied to see what is on offer at Recoat Gallery this month. Paint, once the medium of high art, has been stuck in a quagmire of doubt for the last forty years. Aware of this, the artists exhibiting in Mixed Palette have continued the tradition of painting whilst engaging in contemporary culture and the urban environment. The result is an embrace and commitment to the forgotten medium, instead of a reaction to the latest ‘ism’ or material.

This is what makes the exhibition so refreshing. Paint appears as a footnote to the subject matter rather than its use being so much the issue. Through this approach, there is something thoroughly old-school about the engagement with the medium, despite its modern urban look.

The leader of the pack is Dave White, who, prior to exhibiting at Recoat, has shared wall space with the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Damian Hirst. However, lest any association with Hirst ruin your regard for White, I can testify to the fact that substance and skill are central to his work. What links White with these formidable pop artists is that his work has a distinct, ‘cool’ mien about it.

The one painting exhibited at Recoat is from his latest series ‘Superheroes and Villains’. Batman is animated with swift, thick oil stokes; the reference is pop, though unlike the smooth, clean and flat application used by Warhol and Lichtenstein, his protagonist’s surface is expressive and cropped to frame just his face. Batman seems to be struggling with his energy, or a force exerted from beyond the frame. This is one frame separated from the narrative strip usual to a comic book; he stands alone on the canvas on the gallery wall. What comes to mind is the sense of frisson in contemporary culture — the fear of repressed inaction, and sudden thrill of heroic action.

Continuing in a similar vein are the works by Chinamike and Jacob Smith. Smith, who has been described as an ‘urban realist’, fills his large canvases with an overlapping pastiche of manga figures, superheroes, and often a fetishist depiction of women in a slick, stylised manner. There is an irreverence in his work too, often using one pop-cultural icon to mock another cultural, historical or political figure — such as with the inclusion of Care Bears with the swastika painted on their bellies, or George Bush as Zorro.

However, this continual appropriation of pop-culture iconography has less to do with the shock of contradicting images, and more to do with its use as a visual abbreviation which can understood by everyone. Comic-book and manga animation were traditionally the reserve interest of male youth. Now with the inclusion of a certainly pornographic, almost sadomasochist rendering of women, a melding of pre-adolescent fetishism and adult fetish comes to the fore.

Talking to Guardian, Smith mentioned that for his next project he planned a series of paintings of nude ladies in wrestling masks, which will undoubtedly provoke mixed emotional responses. Perhaps this is a critique of the predominance of sexualised imagery and escapism continually on offer in the common culture, although I fear it’s more to do with the artist’s own amusement and desire.

The youngest of the artists on show is Fraser Gray, and it is he who examines the medium of paint and the painted surface most profoundly in his work. Rather than confine his painting to the canvas, Gray extends the image to the wall beyond its edge. The painting is no longer framed in the traditional format; instead the image now reaches out and engages with the space of the viewer. In doing so, Gray makes the work on one level site-specific, and on another, keeping within the context of the medium of painting and canvas-as-object. This lessens the impact of the work as a commodity object, and instead emphasises the relationship people have with their environment in contemporary culture.

Fraser described his pictures to Guardian as a jarring combination of graphics based ‘consumerist’ imagery and traditional Scottish landscape. It seems appropriate that the Dundee based artist has chosen neon tartan as one of his main motifs for consumerist design.

These artists and others represented in Mixed Palette use different kinds of paint and use them in diverging ways, often combining several types in one work. Arching across this collection are references to what was once anticipated as a future visualised in hyper-heroic vividness, and is now regarded as a future that doesn’t quite function as was expected. By showing the unreality of popular and contemporary culture, one gets the sense of a dystopian vision of the future amid the reality of the urban environment.

Mixed Palette at Recoat Gallery is exhibiting until 1st March 2009. For more information, visit


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