‘Guilty Pleasure’ Exhibition Review: Pleasure, Guilt and Defiance In the Age of Austerity
On the face of it, Guilty Pleasure is an exhibition about painting, about painters who love painting and the sumptuous material expressivity of paint itself. The Swedish artist Lukas Göthman (b. 1970) lavishes his canvases with intoxicatingly thick swirls of color to create a highly sculptural form of concrete poetry. Göthman paints words and yet, contrary to the relatively ascetic formation of much word-based art, his works are deliciously, shamelessly painterly. “Often,” says Göthman, “painting itself is the clearest taste of life.” The works of the Berlin-based Finnish artist, Olli Piippo (b. 1980), are composed with a lighter touch. Both tentative and bold, Piippo’s brushmarks trace the hand of a thoughtful artist who has learned to suspend intrusive thinking and trust in a process enabled maybe only by paint itself. Guilty Pleasure presents the work of two artists who are committed not only to paint but also to the slow pace and the discipline of the medium. Painting, says Piippo, progresses by “one gesture and action at a time” in which “excessive leaps and unduly quick solutions don’t even appear as alternatives.” In an era when the very existence of artists is under threat by the well-heeled apparatchiks of austerity and quick-fixes, we are reminded that artistic methods have much to offer us.
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The title of the exhibition will be discussed later, but to begin at the beginning, although not necessarily explicit in the individual pieces on show, the work of both artists takes its departure point from some form of a journey. For his part, Piippo’s paintings were developed experimentally as a series on which he worked simultaneously, in starts and stops, adding to and reflecting upon each canvas from day to day. Allowing himself to work by free association – of places travelled, sense, memory, colour, sound, and emotion – Piippo has said that he did not approach the paintings as problems to be solved, but rather as “painterly challenges, or even phantoms” which led him to a series of “detours and winding roads”. This open-ended, intuitive method led him to produce a curiously varied series of works, some, such as Satan is My Shepherd, suggestive of an absurdist or crude humour, reminiscent of the work of Philip Guston, others resplendently romantic, such as El Amor, Olvidar, with the line from a poem by Pablo Neruda inscribed in echoing layers at the base of luminous, golden-washed canvas. While such works suggest evocative mnemonic impressions, others, such as Life, Bath, Sex, Water, present a fleshy existentialist anxiety. Throughout Piippo’s work, the spectrum of expressions, colors, forms, and the density of paint reflect an organic development, a very human relay between confidence and fragility, that the artist summarizes as a process of “working, discovering, and partly also losing.”
TThe rude boldness of the selection of Göthman’s word-works might give a somewhat misleading picture of the broader character of his œuvre. In Journey, the 2012 show at Helsinki Contemporary, this was conveyed through a range of Japonesque or Strindbergesque landscapes and a series of vintage color postcards on which kitschy picturesque scenes were superimposed with seemingly incongruous words or phrases in gawky flower-power font. A scene of a snow-capped mountain landscape, for example, is interrupted with the word “SYRUP,” or an autumnal street view with the words “CHEEKS APART.” Such humorous juxtapositions of word and image necessarily recall the link between surrealism and pop art, a relation that is introduced again in the Guilty Pleasure series. According to the artist, though, the series was prompted by a “punk idea,” which might account for the highly effective, even aggressive, choice of words with which he has constructed his recent paintings. One wall of the exhibition is lined with small canvases crying out words such as “VIRUS,” “RABIES,” “REBELS,” “POISON,” or “SCABIES.” However, while Göthman’s work can be seen to enjoy the witty transgressions of both surrealism and pop art, there is also a depth of personal investment in the working process of his art that distances it from the prevailing implications of such movements.
Göthman’s paintings develop via an idiosyncratic process, beginning with a period of solitary travel during which he writes a curiously fantastical journal, and from this extracts the specific words or phrases with which he chooses to construct his paintings. These words are clearly picked out for their punchy effect, but also for their rhythmic, formal or sculptural properties. Göthman’s journals are extraordinary works in themselves, consisting of texts that blur reality, dream, and fiction. At times they read like a surrealist dream text, at others a sci-fi dystopia, and at others a delirious gonzo trip: “Between the tents and the fires on the beach and the total wilderness, a small population of hermits with suitable distances between their huts. Most of them are ex-psychotherapists or ex-city petrol station managers, all are tired of talking.” The dream-like, comic and fantastical sometimes give way to a moving reflection on time, and the impossibility of a coherency of self: “Inside me are the scents of the ‘70s, the anguish of the ‘80s, the entire range of colors of the ‘90s, but nothing exists anymore.”
[alert type=white ]Göthman’s journals are extraordinary works in themselves, consisting of texts that blur reality, dream, and fiction. At times they read like a surrealist dream text, at others a sci-fi dystopia, and at others a delirious gonzo trip.[/alert]
Ultimately, Göthman’s journal and his working process give a startling depth to a series of paintings that might otherwise be read as witty, aggressive, and playful oscillations between form and content, paint and word, conceptual and optical. They can, of course, be taken as accomplished ends in themselves, enjoyed as phatly-painted snippets of punk haikus or sexy sculptural semiotics, and yet the fact that they are an outcome of a painstakingly slow painterly construction and a complex, time-rich, personal journey does give them a deeper dimension. We may suspect that Göthman’s heavily painted punky words are the distilled truths of a journey that lies hidden from us and yet in which we can take our pleasure. As Göthman heartily declares: “It’s good to have heavy paintings. It’s good for you.”
There is indeed pleasure in how the works of Göthman and Piippo explore and enable us to experience the liberating, organic wonder of thickly smeared oil paint and the sense of the psycho-somatic immersiveness of this extraordinarily transporting medium. Despite the incriminating title of the exhibition, the sensory seductions and the technical and cognitive challenges offered by this pursuit make one wonder: “Why doesn’t everyone paint?” Such a question might suppose that the title of this exhibition refers to more than sensual remorse, that the pleasures of painting amount to more than a mere overindulgence. Arguably, the title of the exhibition raises the question that, in these shaming, miserablist, neo-Gradgrindian times of austerity, is it acceptable to be a painter? Is, for example, an art therapist more “valuable” than an artist or why might artists who paint thickly be “guilty” when investment bankers are not? Even if you don’t feel guilty about being an artist or engaging in art, there are certainly many people who should like you to; people who imagine the artist, or worse still the painter, a blithe Nero decadently daubing while the world burns and the (public) coffers empty. Further still, in Guilty Pleasures, Göthman applies the inch thick layers of paint with such abandon that even those who generally don’t reduce an artistic gesture to its monetary value, seem to find themselves asking: “How much does all this paint cost?” or “When, as an artist, did you feel you could allow yourself to use so much paint?” Such questions are not incidental.
[alert type=white ]Is it acceptable to be a painter? Is, for example, an art therapist more “valuable” than an artist or why might artists who paint thickly be “guilty” when investment bankers are not?[/alert]
The material lavishness of Göthman’s work defies the parsimoniousness of today’s belt-tightening, instrumentalist mentality, and yet this does not equate it to a simple defiance, nor to an expression of and invitation to expenditure. To the Gradgrinds of this world, it is always hard to “justify” art, and painting in particular beyond its prestige as an investment, especially the philosophical and lyrical character of painting such as that of Göthman and Piippo.
[alert type=white ]To the Gradgrinds of this world it is always hard to “justify” art, and painting in particular beyond its prestige as investment, especially the philosophical and lyrical character of painting such as that of Göthman and Piippo. [/alert]
With this in mind, the exhibition title can be read as much as a question as a statement of how we make and engage in art. What are the kinds of pleasures that the artists, or we as viewers, might be guilty of? Notably, what is most significant and, these days, political about the answer to this question is that these “guilty pleasures” are as much sensual and romantic as intellectual and philosophical. We well know that non-representational or quasi-representational art disquiets dictators and flatulent uncles alike, but in 2016 – a time when, many wise people would argue, the intellectual and the artist are of vital importance in building more than quick-fix solutions – intellectual and artistic responses do seem to run against the grain of austerity morality. Guilty Pleasure reminds us of how risibly wrong-headed is a society which deems decadent or illegitimately useless the immense discipline and self-training, the slow but incontrovertible accruing of technical and phenomenological knowledge that defines a painter’s life and work. Lukas Göthman has said that the works in this exhibition were conceived around the idea of “duality or ambivalence,” and, alongside the more formal questions concerning the play between word and paint, image and gesture, reality or fiction, the question of pleasure and the economics of guilt is perhaps at once both the most superficial and the most poignant ambivalence presented.
Lukas Göthman and Olli Piippo: Guilty Pleasure
Bulevardi 10, 00120 Helsinki