The discourse of painting has become so self-reflexive as to almost seem apologetic, distrustful of the act itself. Artists use a variety of strategies to create this conceptual distance, from Michael Krebber’s depiction of Internet commentary to Emily Sundblad’s unfinished works that use the medium as performance. Charles Mayton holds painting at arm’s length, all the while contributing to the conversation. In his first solo exhibition, the artist grafted this apprehension around painting onto a surrogate – The Difficult Crossing, a 1926 painting by René Magritte – and unfolded a richly complex narrative for the inaugural exhibition of Balice Hertling & Lewis.
The conceit and title of the show are taken from the Magritte work, which depicts canvases and a stormy ocean at night, all in situ at the artist’s atelier. On the one hand, registering the anxiety of influence, and on the other, the accession of a pre-existing conversation, Mayton recreated the uncanny subject matter of the painting: the title of the art work and the exhibition was emblazoned on the gallery doormat; viewers were greeted by a rounded white coat rack adorned with paper eyes; citrus fruits were scattered across the floor, each annotated with words relating to oceans written in the script associated with Magritte’s handwriting; and the paintings were hung side by side at varying heights.
Made using brushy swathes of colour, Mayton’s paintings make reference to their source material while also illustrating the devices and tools used to render them. The Keeper of Purple Twilight (all works 2011) depicts the making of a vanishing point, the masking tape painted at diagonals, in an attempt to simulate the simulation of depth. (This shape, akin to an unfolded box, also appeared in the foreground of another, untitled painting.) Tongue in cheek, the artist created the references both conceptually and literally in an untitled painting featuring a yellow surface replete with black quotation marks in various sizes. These works, some freshly unpackaged, not yet installed, and leaning in the gallery office, collectively built a vocabulary, a visual simile, with which to construct both the Magritte scene and Mayton’s own abstracted process. The penultimate work in the exhibition, The Art of Conversation after The Battle for the Twentieth Century, combines the various approaches used by Mayton into one horizon where a white, blank void – the very shape implemented to create the illusion of three-dimensional space – interrupts a thick stormy seascape. Two quotation marks flank the top corner of the canvas and are mirrored at the bottom by keyholes, one red, one black. As the title suggests, Mayton tugs waggishly (and earnestly) at artistic practice – spinning an allegory which overtly objectifes the struggle to create work, yet deflects the more emotional and personal aspects to historical reference points and modes of production.
By pulling at the past, the artist locates the anxiety of another and displaces onto it his own. The unseen relationship of history, education, praxis, product and marketplace fold into one. Mayton used his first solo exhibition to articulate how the formal vocabulary of each canvas can inform the viewer of the distant past and the skill required to make the works. However complex and beautiful, one is left wondering where to locate the joy of painting, and what might be created should the anxiety of production be divorced from the painting itself.