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Issue 40 May 1998 RSS

David Falconer

Chapman Fine ARTS, London, UK

Butcher’s shops and their contents have a valued status amongst artists and others reflecting on mortality. This tradition goes back a long way, certainly beyond the visits made by the Victorians to abattoirs and insane asylums, of which this show is a bit of both. The venue is an old butcher’s shop off Brick Lane in London’s East End, its original interior retained for the show: a grim, dirty box of soiled, unmatching tiles and perishing vinyl floor. The atmosphere is of uncleanliness and the potential for disease.

Vermin Death Stack (1997-98) stands in the middle of the shop. It is a grey tower of dead mice, constructed from fibreglass casts of frozen mus musculus, as sold in pet shops for snake food. These are disposed in a filigree of corpses whose details are finely painted in a naturalistic style: a skillfully crafted trompe l’oeil of fine whiskers, delicate hands and tiny death grins. The tapering phalanx of small, grey, dead mice is taller than a human, stopping just short of the ceiling. The stack is wider at the base than at the top and is slightly asymmetrical, looking a bit like a natural organic form such as a tornado twister or termite colony. Rat (1996) is a separate work, a stuffed rodent walking upside down across the ceiling - its genus and proximity to ...Stack creating a slightly strained, overly self-conscious counterpoint.

It is possible to consider a number of correspondences between ...Stack and the world. These could include genocide and ethnic cleansing (Pol Pot’s piles of skulls); slaughter and ritual (the mice are a sacrificial offering to the art world); obsessional neurosis (the preoccupation with disease and the obsessive, repetitious detail of the work’s fabrication); subsumed, collective male potency anxieties (individual mice are like flaccid penises, but the column is erect); hierarchy, equality and differentiation (all mice are created equal); as well as, most obviously, mortality (all the mice are dead). There is also the sense of a plippity, ploppity piling of excreted waste - it looks like a monument to an unspecified incontinence.

The sculpture’s highly-crafted, consummate attention to detail echoes the work of the gallery’s artist proprietors, Jake and Dinos Chapman, who have here successfully launched what seems to be as much a school of art as a gallery. Fortunately, it comes unaccompanied by too much deep-brain scholarly text or polysyllabic manifesto. The delicacy of detail in the individuated mice, and their realist painted surfaces, is similar to that of ceramic mantelpiece decorations advertised in colour supplements, or other pockets of resistance in which crafted, polychromatic representation still hangs out. ...Stack lacks the anthropomorphic touch of Woolworth’s kitsch however, or the traditional pop irony and knowing disjunctions of the Chapmans’ work.

...Stack provides evidence that what is elsewhere seen as the dumbo plodding craftwork of representational painting is here in brilliant health. Although displaced from canvas onto three-dimensional surfaces, painting’s role in the service of illusionistic representation here continues uninterrupted. The coming together of the provocative derangements of Falconer’s evil rodent death cult with the painter’s stolid business is a charming irony, to be enjoyed.

...Stack is a high quality, local totem pole belonging to the ancient cult of pillars, at which to worship artistic extremity. Accompanied by involuntary responses to fear - nervous spasms and the hysterical laughter of the artist - the work has a logic of excess. In part, this paradoxically introduces a sense of security, the kind of security that comes from the increased certainties - even if unwelcome - that catastrophe brings. In our time of plagues - of sex plagues, animal foodstuff plagues and other dread pollutions - Falconer’s infestation of pain and death successfully volunteers us a little, poised structure of the uncontrollable.

Neal Brown

About this article

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First published in
Issue 40, May 1998

by Neal Brown

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