Right from the start ‘Expander’ got down to elective affinities: nature is as theatrical as the self, the historical field is subject to poetic licence; Blake is the new Black. Softly lit, the first gallery was loaded with grandiose botanic delights such as Alisa Margolis’ museum-scale paintings and Christopher Landoni’s naturalistic polystyrene sculpture Borderline Log (2003). Like horticulturally allergic aesthetes, Landoni and Margolis relieve flowers of their pollinating duties and send them to cultural postings. Biological imperatives are sucked into a painterly vortex in Margolis’ Wednesday Morning Diptych (2004). Blossoms are lost in space, lacerated into turpentine tatters by the picture plane’s gravitational field.
Mustafa Hulusi’s curatorial proclivities were paraded audaciously – appropriate in the Royal Academy, where there’s little point trying to conjure up the illusion of cultural democracy. Relentlessly and lusciously neo-Romantic, Iris van Dongen’s apocalypstick self-portraits filter enigmatic Symbolist pictorial devices through Goth’s more contemporary mythologizations. While there are echoes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s macabre glorification of Elizabeth Siddal in the sublime Dragon (2004), van Dongen, far from being enraptured, looks like she’s walking calmly out of the picture. The decorative scheme fails to subordinate; the artist remains part of our own time and space.
Dee Ferris’ Sentimental Thriller (2004) creates a similarly ambiguous sense of place and cultural geography, a highly controlled emotive vision that connotes the misty Romantic landscape paintings of J.M.W. Turner while echoing 1950s film noir, a pantheon of sentimental 1980s neo-Expressionists such as Christopher Le Brun and the shallow depth of field used in much contemporary food photography. This awkward contrivance also frequents Dubossarsky and Vinogradov’s large painting Big Paradise (1994), portraying naked women relaxing in a field amid an anomalous menagerie of tigers and cows. A young girl smiles as she feeds the bears, while another couple enjoy a perfectly staged picnic (or is it a still life?). This fantasy clearly parodies Stalinist imperatives to reveal the ‘honesty and truthfulness of revolutionary Socialist Realism’. Post-Communism the subjects of Soviet art are homeless; they vainly attempt to return to the myth of nature, yet wear jewellery that reveals their social ancestry. Big Paradise exploits and ridicules Western preconceptions of Soviet art as much as it might undermine bourgeois and aristocratic landscape painting. Socialist Realism was one of many modernisms, an idealist vision of the world as an image. The painting provides a crucial link between the opening swathes of neo-Romanticism, (Socialist) Realism and the idealism of Modernism, a narrative that dominates the following gallery, where freshly ripened paintings by Jaime Gili in the style of László Moholy-Nagy hang alongside Jason Meadows’ grungy-Constructivist sculptures Queen Wasp (2003), Romeo (2003) and Shelving with Extra Red Dimensions (1999).
This formal clarity and Utopian narrative also inform the work of Christian Ward. Rather than being drawn to hazy or obscure mark-making, Ward is a fan of clean lines and saccharine palettes. Red Flood (2003) and Ocean Park (2003) use loaded brushstrokes to build up a series of curvilinear forms to create the illusion of cavernous recession. Wet-look rocks and stalactites seem to find their shape as quickly and effortlessly as putty. Fluid and temporary, the fabricated surfaces have a haptic quality, reuniting our sense of sight with our sense of touch by loudly announcing their fabrication in skeins of dragged paint. The paintings look easily reproducible – like the spaces generated in a Hipgnosis record sleeve, a role-playing video game or fractal geometry – but are highly tactile, formed from tricky licks.
Ward’s paintings hang near Toby Ziegler’s Designa-ted for Leisure III (2004), a landscape painting that marks a subtle shift from the analogue techniques dominating the exhibition to works conceived and executed in digital terms. Ziegler works with oil on Scotch-Brite, generating an illusion that functions like a large magic-eye image. This is designed to crumble on closer inspection into a confusing kaleidoscope of pixels, the ground bouncing the gallery light to create a shimmering surface that devastates the flatly painted monochromatic fields. A similar struggle between figure and ground is fought in Haluk Akakçe’s mesmerizing abstract film Delicate Balance (2001) – which resembles a shadow theatre directed by Franz Kline and performed by synchronized swimmers with swivel-chair legs – signifying that painters’ painting isn’t always painted by painters’ painters. The path of ‘Expander’ continued to veer in unexpected directions, incorporating miniature paintings by Muhammad Imran Qureshi, a film by Rosalind Nashashibi and Cory Arcangel’s home-programmed vintage Nintendo NES cartridges. While I Shot Andy Warhol (2003) was the only interactive work in sight, Arcangel’s attempt to encourage a retro 8-bit programming movement acted as perfect denouement to ‘Expander’, demonstrating that imaginative flights of fancy often occur within the most restricted parameters.