01.10.10 Review of Alex Virji, 'Variations on a Theme' in 'Turps Banana', 2010, by Fin Cullum

‘Philip Akkerman: Full Frontal’ at Mummery+Schnelle, London, 8 September – 9 October 2010

Alex Virji: Variations on a Theme at Gallery Primo Alonso, London 11 September – 17 October 2010

by Fin Cullum

Both shows share common worries. Outside painting, this level of reflection on the self could almost be considered neurotic, but within the studio this ouroboros is a fantastic generator of intellectual voltage. Both deal with the self’s imprint onto canvas and the remnants of portraiture as a discreet investigative form.

Alex Virji’s paintings are a kind of cultural alchemy, collaging visual tropes and transmogrifying them into forms inescapably redolent of the artist’s judgment and person. Philip Akkerman continues a twenty-none year self-portrait jag during which he has produced two thousand, three hundred and fourteen works; the ramifications of such an endeavour hover over this collection of twenty-six of the most recent paintings. All artists sometimes worry about being either pseudo-conceptual aestheticists or pseudo-aesthetic conceptualises. Accordingly, both shows deal with the continuing fight for aesthetic dominance between, and the seemingly unshakeable polarisation of, high breezy conceptualism and the earthier, muskier strata of painting by touch and eye. The paintings in both shows are navigational waypoints as the artists worm their way through rich conceptual mulch, digesting as they go.

Akkerman’s show is a strange object when viewed as a unit – there’s so much to get through before you reach the paintings. Immediately and inescapably, the knowledge of the preceeding twenty-three hundred assaults on the same subject colours your expectations of the painting. In truth the subject is not the same, and Akkerman’s relationship to an inevitably changing visage is ever present in the show as part of a continuum. 2314: Philip Akkerman 2314 Self Portraits 1981 – 2005, the bound chronicle of Akkerman’s paintings sits at the front of the gallery and is availably for purchase. This is the trickiest thing to resolve in the show” a strong distrust of the printed image when it comes to painting. It is impossible to tell whether the roughed-up brushwork is a major departure from much smoother, rent work; or whether they all look smooth in print.

Undoubtedly, over time the images change; at first a handsome ideal, butch and boldly turning his eyes outward and nose up, head turned at a forty-five degree angle to the viewer. Latterly the paintings have become increasingly bodily, focusing on the face and its internal workings, searching for architecture amongst the structure. Moving from frontalis to procerus, orbicularis oculi to nasalis looking for an exciting crevice to slip some paint into. In some respects, this is the curse of all portrait painters; to be lured in by the magnetism of the mirror and the million other faces you’ve learned to love and hate only to end up drifting thirsty between oases of tight modelling across planes of essentially ‘nothingy’ forehead.

In truth, aging, like most life processes, has a universalising prosaicism to it, one perhaps not suited to the romantically inclined. The show’s title: ‘Full Frontal’, a pre-emptive strike against aging. Get the first blow in and win the match, turn yourself into a slab of greying meat before time gets there first and if that doesn’t deliver the knockout, break your image down completely and disappear off in a puff of psychedelia. These acts of self-definition exercise the will’s biceps, and make sure that time and its corporeally destabilising influence stay firmly in a headlock as you cruelly muss its hair with your knuckles under the pretence of jovial coexistence. Although, you could ask if perhaps Akkerman is at his most self-confident when he is t his most psychedelic, the face having become a near-redundant field for mark. The relation of such a document of multifarious paintings to humanism and psychoanalysis demands these readings and an anthropological vein to any analysis.

There is something strangely primitivist about Akkerman’s show, the brushwork feels scratchy on the masonite panels hung simply by one horizontal axis at the back and angled down against the wall. Also, the paint itself is often dry and sandy, the pthalocyanine blue and green washes feel like an unsubtle use of their potentially overpowering petrochemical properties. You are left wondering whether these are decidedly European primitive masks: half eighteenth-century death mask, half West African Vodun fetish. While undoubtedly there have been comparative studies of this sort made with varying degrees of pseudoscientific value, these paintings seem a preferable method of synthesis.

These paintings are more exploratory than experimental. If these were truly experiments wouldn’t you hope for some sort of results to be drawn from one to the next? Instead, you get a sense of slow drifts from one set of ideas to another. Otherwise the sheet weight of painterly dialogue Akkerman would have to keep in his head would slow the process to a crawl: was last week’s painting a real step in the right direction in tonal balancing, or was that one I did in 1998 better? The explorer can pass through some territories quickly and linger in others; the cartographer must document everything dispassionately. Akkerman is definitely the former rather than the latter.

There is a Kippenberger suit-trousers-round-the-ankles shouty radicalism to the work’s demeanour, but also an anti-avant-garde positioning. This is part of a series of paradoxes surrounding the work that is both initially frustrating and eventually the most rewarding part of the show. Seemingly determined and capricious at the same time, very contained within an approachable and familiar tradition of portraiture and yet with a huge mass of images haunting the show from the pages of the enormous tome of paintings at the desk dating back to 1981. Sometimes Akkerman paints himself a conceptual refusenik and others seem to embrce the nature of his work existing well outside the paintings in a nebulous, numinous plane of romantically structuralist intellectualising.

The problem facing any painter is not whether to paint. This is a simple Darwinian reflex that is near universal; inclination and expectation govern whether the twitch is strong enough to make a painter. The problem is what or more precisely how to paint: what to do when you finally touch canvas with paint. For most of human history this has been taken care of by society, quietly but with the firm surety of a parent. A dreamy painting of an aurochs on a cave wall, funeral portraits on caskets and Dionysius jollying about pissed; all culturally laid down paths ready to be walked. Adrift from these certainties and just about clear of an abstract backlash, painters can now choose how to reinterpret these conventions.

The portrait has just recently disappeared from Alex Virji’s work, almost literally. The figures have ducked out of the frames; bent down to tie a shoelace and never reappearing. Gone are the miniatures, turbaned and cancerous rendered in impasto and slicked over with resin. Virji’s eye has glazed over and refocused on the space behind his subjects, settling on the wallpaper instead. Floral folds make up the foregrounds’s sitter and comfortably take the pace of their hirsute forbears. These similarly pleated petals occupy the centre of the oval canvases and are courted by an attendant growth of other floral motifs and the odd intrusion of an abstract graphic form or plane. In some respects this is a traditional progression in the conceptualist form. Shedding all extraneous baggage and paring down to a detail, then assaulting that detail with the same vigour previously squandered on the whole.

Virji’s progressions seem easier than Akkerman’s; they aren’t constantly, overtly, tangling with the relationship with one’s own face. The ability to relate accurately to the image in the mirror escapes everyone; so much is caught up in how we view and are viewed. Aside from that, the self-image is prey to the same fallacy with which we view all images, just that they are images alone and not surrounded by the rest of the sensorium. No one has ever viewed an image without tasting something at the same time or feeling bodily his or her own presence.

This is physiologically true of the self-portrait, the face is the psychic spear tip of identity and the maxim ‘know thyself’ can never really apply to self-physiognomy as it is impossible to ‘see thyself’ without the meddling intervention of mediating imaging process. Not only is the self-image surrounded by a bodily experience that happens to be reflexive in this case, there is also a necessary mediation by, at best, a mirror. Perhaps it is axiomatic that sometimes experience clouds judgement; the uninitiated, the abstract, the remote and even the ignorant have a clarity unavailable to even the most disciplined mind in certain situations. Undoubtedly, a self portrait is ridden with quarrelling concerns over self-image, but any painting is, to a degree, the same. Paintings are ciphers for the painter themselves, an expression of their talent or lack thereof. The desire to paint nice as an expression of self-worth.

As the portrait disappears in Virji’s paintings and dissolves in Akkerman’s, spatial dynamics come to the fore as abstractions invade the picture plan, and return the eye to the flattened reality of consensually hallucinated picture-plane. Virji’s obstinate corralling of the eye and withholding of certain previous layers, showing only the uppermost ridges of an underground infrastructure of marks is explicitly sculptural. Akkerman’s doolally liaisons with saccharine hues and candy stripe hatching have the same effect. As this manoeuvre away from portraiture is executed we all start to talk more and more in analogue: archaeology, syncopation, rhyme, no man’s land. If the act of painting is an ‘exhuman’, who has died? This may seem like a pedantry, and on one level a metphorical linguistic bent and a certain floridity seems essential when writing in flat black and white about the greasy alchemy that is oil painting. On the other hand, it is too common to see a work’s dialogue obscured by curtains of mellifluous similes and poetic abstractions; this can be the product of a desire to disengage with the contextual wrangling by expounding on the values of a work through a filigree description. Press releases are often guilty of this; inflating paragraphs with carefully outlined delineations of the works physical form, sidestepping any copy on theory. In this sense, the academic mechanisms of Mummery + Schnelle seem a little better greased than at Primo Alonso.

Metaphors used in this way must remain computational: integer in a balanced equation. This holds true for the paintings themselves in both these shows – the key to their success is whether or not the heavily loaded metaphors and tropes within each work can remain functional and in balance. That is not to say that they can be fully framed and categorised within a key or rigid framework; that would be a failure in and of itself. There is plenty of room for top heavy tipsiness and some of the metaphors in both Akkerman and Virji’s work are certainly of heady, vintage stock.

The front-on portrait format, new to Akkerman’s work, and the springy ringlets of hair glazed on with single marks are brutally, inescapably Durer. The flattening out of the face onto the picture plane has something about it sympathetic to the woodblock print and the intaglio press. Even the record-cover psychedelia of the more abstracted portraits display a fuzzed-out bonhomie with yellowing pages of an old master monograph. The first thing you notice about Virji’s work is its format, the oval of between fifteen and twenty-five centimetres or so in height has been ubiquitous in his work since his first appearance in a group show a few years ago. These are classic formal miniatures, shored up by the hang’s lighting: soft spotlights of varying lilac and blue tints, reminiscent of the manners of the Wallace Collection and eschewing the brash, white, fluro-frankness of many contemporary galleries.

Partially erased washes and motifs held in the troughs of the canvas’ weave are reminiscent of the screen-print, its dot-matrix flatness adding to the graphic spatial disruptions Virji is beginning to experiment with, a tough ask of such a small canvas. A certain creaky, deep south gothic space is implied in a few of the old painting; yellow floral wallpaper offset by a flat plane that could be a floor or simply a concealing slather. Turning these spatial relationships to a taught, high pitch without becoming a whiny insistence or a background hiss is a task requiring a pitch perfect eye.

Music as a reference hovers around Virji’s show; the press release refers to the iterative format and motifs as raga-like and looping. The hang – interrupted groups of two irregular pairings of scale – advertises itself as syncopation and the work’s titling could easily comprise an album’s track listing: ‘Lights’, ‘Drift’ and ‘Monument Ambient’. Next to the already trope-laden paintings these feel like itinerant metaphors, vestigial cultural artifacts that never quite fully manifest in the paintings.

The compounding of essential visual ethers into a final tincture is really the prime act of Virji’s work. Like Akkerman these are self portraits, the record of selective process of combination, possibly only by a specific individual. Each trope forms a value in an equation that has to be made to balance with the painting as its result. Trained aesthetic instinct, taste even, is the more human way that these paintings seem to have been made; so perhaps is it more cooking than maths, certainly a more visceral process than Bourriaud’s cultural DJ idiom allows.

The touch is paramount to Virji’s work, every painters’s inescapable fingerprint. Accrued over time, it is present in every scumbled, undulating cumulous and every bilious yellow wash. The tints and rubs of Rembrandt hues put you immediately in mind of a mahogany-stained hand wielding a richly odiferous cloth, tongue poking out of mouth, perpetually working millimetres from a canvas. The cloth or equivalent plays an important role in Virji’s process; layers and layers build up and are wiped away leaving historical traces, comparably present in the way we view old master paintings now, with their crackling surfaces and foggy glazes. They were never intended to be palimpsets of this kind but Virji’s paintings are.

This implicitly referrential process is not just a search for a a recidivist classical gravitas or post-Modern specificity; there is a genuine regard and love for this long-surviving meme, which ranges from Van Eyck, through Rubens and Van Dyck, to Van Rijn himself and Frans Hals. It is impossible to escape reference to Christopher Orr, though maybe Daniel Silver is a more useful consideration. Neil Gall springs to mind – the modularity across the paintings and there is the ever present Fragonard, chocolate box effect, deployed with an unusual lack of irony.

The presence or absence of irony is trickier to pin down in Akkerman’s work; while the absence of irony in Virji’s work does not seem guileless, in Akkerman’s it would. Maybe this then, is the greatest difference between the shows: self-reflexivity is separated from the act of painting by Akkerman’s inclusion of concern with self-image, while in Virji’s work it remains in the murky subconscious depths with aesthetic instinct and physical painterly action. Contrary to popular doctrine, perhaps it is better to leave it down there and worry about it later.