An essay by Dom Heffer to coincide with the exhibition Dreaming of the Middle Ages at 20-21 Visual Arts Centre.
The Cultural logic of Paul Collinson
We may wonder when experiencing a body of work, by a contemporary painter, entitled ‘Dreaming of the middle ages’: Where are the castles? The jousts? The damsels in distress? Such are the images of the ‘popular’ middle ages.
But remember, we are ‘dreaming’ the Middle Ages, and this implies a less obvious symbolic order. We should also be aware that Paul Collinson is a grand strategist amongst painters, things are scrupulously planned, and nothing is done without ‘reason’. This desire for rationale is pivotal for the uniqueness of these works. We need to do our research…
The title is borrowed from an essay by the late Italian Philosopher Umberto Eco – in which he writes:
‘We are dreaming the Middle ages, some say. But, in fact, both Americans and Europeans are inheritors of the western legacy, and all the problems of the western world emerged in the middle ages: modern languages, merchant cities, capitalist economies….all these are inventions of medieval society’
Having made this connection, we realize that we are dealing with traces, scars and archetypes of society. The middle ages are still very present, without us recognizing it. We are looking at acts of ‘un-concealment’, to use Heidegger’s phrase, rather than indulging in nostalgia. The cultural logic suggested by these works, as Isabella Streffen has astutely noted, forms cautionary tales. But they equally address the ‘politics of aesthetics’ and question the notion of a ‘socially critical art’, as Jacques Ranciere has written:
“Critical art is an art that aims to produce a new perception of the world, and therefore to create a commitment to its transformation. This schema, very simple in appearance, is actually the conjunction of three processes: first, the production of a sensory form of ‘strangeness’; second, the development of an awareness of the reason for that strangeness and third, a mobilization of individuals as a result of that awareness.”
These works certainly feature critique. Somewhere between the naturalistic suburban scenes of George Shaw and the allegorical vistas of Caspar David Friedrich, they are more like unsettling reveries of civilization and its discontents. The ‘strangeness’ that Ranciere speaks of is notable in the juxtapositions of things, the ‘awareness of the reason’ comes from the piecing together of the inherent ‘logic’….and the mobilization? A painting can only go so far….but this body of work provokes questions as to how cultures shape or distort environments, whilst pealing back veneers to expose latent forces. They are critical of the ‘becoming’ of the landscape. Provoking the question ‘Do you get the landscape you deserve?’….
Those aware of Collinson’s painting will notice a subtle shift in the landscape, There is less emphasis on the suburban hinterlands that characterized previous works. We are often taken into arid plains – ‘deserts of the real’ where the crisp blue skies imply a clarity of vision, or a rational serenity, whilst tipping a wink to the firmaments of post Copernican painting. These crystal clear expanses have the effect of emphasizing the geometry of the landscape. Gone are the more ‘cinematographic’ view points, and blurred areas. They have been usurped by a picture plane in sharp focus, confronted ‘face on’. These works look more like historical theme parks than abandoned wastelands and ironic ‘sculpture parks’ but they are still treated with the same ironical detachment and wit.
Let us examine a selection of the works: ‘Heidegger’s Hut’, ‘Primavera’ and ‘Garden of Earthly Delight’ – three titles explicitly referential of western culture.
‘Heidegger’s Hut’ appropriates the idea of the ‘monastic cell’, a retreat, in the middle of the Black forest, where the eponymous German philosopher would go to write – This rudimentary shelter is born of four stripped tree trunks, reminiscent of Doric columns or turrets, which offer scanty cover (and satellite TV) to a World War two German tank – a direct ancestor of the medieval cannon.
The gun turret points, like a telescope, towards one of Collinson’s ‘screens’. These oblique forms often carry advertising hoardings, they often pop up in this body of work, taking the place of the more quotidian fly posting and signposts of previous works. Upon the screen we find a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ hijack taking place – suggesting a portal to the virtual world and virtual violence. The scene conjures a bizarre take on the drive in movie, whilst suggesting neither heavy artillery, nor the dream of rickety retreats, can defend us from the omnipresent technological/virtual world.
From the Black forest to the ‘Desert of the real’ – ‘Primavera’ (meaning ‘first truth’) presents another of these ‘screens’, this time, as a bold capitalist monolith (represented by Britney Spears) juxtaposed with Parthenon-like ancient ruins. To say that these anachronistic motifs vie for position would be an exaggeration – more accurately, they seem co-dependent or parts of a similar impulse. They suggest a visual equation that expresses the cultural logic: periods of ‘high’ culture and decadence equal the decline of western civilizations.
With this prognosis we recall Oswald Spengler who, in his study ‘The Decline of the West’, explores the lifespan of cultures, their logic and ‘destinies’.
“That there is, besides a necessity of cause and effect — which I may call the logic of space — another necessity, an organic necessity in life, that of Destiny — the logic of time — is a fact of the deepest inward certainty,”
Whilst not exactly fatalistic, Collinson’s works imagine these possible ‘destinies’. Motifs converge on the canvas as if to be included in a time capsule. The use of ruins acknowledge entropy and the inevitability of decay. They lead us into a comprehension that there is a cover up going on, a conspiracy against decrepitude in favor of the ever new.
‘Primavera’ shares its title with an allegorical painting of spring, by Botticelli…The Collinson version is a similar allegory, but in response to a man made event, the Arab spring. Botticelli’s painting is set in an orange grove, everything floral, fecund, cupid poised to strike: a testament to burgeoning fertility. Collinson’s ‘Primavera’ is a comment on simulacra of burgeoning fertility – where production perpetuates for its own sake, even arid desert is not safe from the grasp of capitalist ideology. Figures drift through this scene with a sense of elegance and vulnerability, like refugees looking for the ‘real’.
If ‘Primavera’ offers an excursion into ‘desert of the real’ then ‘The garden of Earthly delight’ (note the singular) could be a mirage. Another borrowed title, this time from Hironymous Bosch, this work is inspired by the architecture of the Trafford shopping centre in Manchester. A beautifully rendered barrel vaulted ceiling allows the crisp blue of the sky to remain a salient feature in an otherwise enclosed space. No drifting figures here, where the sense is that the centre is closed for the day and the milky marble floor has been polished ready for the next cycle of conspicuous consumption.
The scene presents us with a tempting signifying chain (Lacan) The objects are merchandised, almost encouraging us to take our pick. The left hand plinth bares the Latin inscription ‘omni quod’ underneath a bikini clad damsel. The next plinth reads ‘bonum est tenete’. Together, these engravings translate to ‘hold fast what is good’ .The quest for this illusive ‘good’ is to be carried out by the modern day Knight Templar (an avatar from a role playing game) that stands upon the second plinth. Next in our chain we have a robotic looking Madonna ensconced in a huge cherub laden frame, and, at the end of the sentence; we find Pegasus, assertively planted as if in exclamation of the prevalence of myth.
The word ‘Destiny’ hovers in between our damsel and our knight and reminds us once more of the inherent logic of time, and the cyclical order of things. Once more we think of Spengler, whose treatment of Societies as ‘organisms’, assumed birth and death as a most inevitable characteristic of these cultures. For Spengler, and perhaps for Collinson, cultures have stages analogous to the seasons, each having periods of growth and decay. This deterministic analysis does not equate to doom and gloom, more so it aligns us with the cultural logic of the time (in Collinson’s case ‘late capitalism’) Despite the sense that our western culture is entering its winter phase, we must remember when looking at these works, that painting is an affirmative gesture. This body of work affirms the possibility of a black forest retreat from the electric dark ages, where we can take consolation from the medieval Philosopher Boethius, who, in his ‘Consolations of Philosophy’ writes:
‘….history is a wheel. ‘Inconstancy is my very essence,’ says the wheel. ‘Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you’re cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope.’