The 17th century poet George Herbert is quoted as having said that ‘living well is the best revenge’, a piece of advice that came to mind whilst wandering through a recent exhibition of new paintings by Jonathan Gardner at Mary Mary.
Imagine being at the 1924 Salon des Indépendents at the Grand Palais in Paris and then finding yourself teleported to the future that is modern Glasgow. In this show of eight paintings, we encountered postures and conjunctions reminiscent of the great era of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse: an ear similar to the one sprouting from a eucalyptus tree in Joan Miró’s The Tilled Field (1923–24); young women relaxing against gridded backgrounds with bare, geometric breasts, like those found in Fernand Léger’s The Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner) from 1921. The show’s opener, Inner Living (2014), depicts the torso of a male figure that stands in front of a turquoise seascape, with a white-sailed yacht visible through a chiming triangular gap in his jacket. He wears a white belt and navy blue trousers; a yellow smiley button is pinned to the creased grey lapel. Who is he? Maybe he’s a man living the good life, a man who really does think that living well is the best revenge. A man like that great forgotten painter of the Lost Generation – Gerald Murphy. Glamorous expatriates, Murphy and his wife Sara left New York and built Villa America near Antibes, on the French Riviera, in 1924, where their social circle included Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and Man Ray. Their close friend F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly based the protagonists of his novel Tender is the Night (1934) on the couple.
In the texture of his pictorial taste, Gardner can be compared to Murphy. Gardner’s work has a similar insouciance; a deft touch in the collage of objects. Like Murphy, he is an American painter responding – albeit at a remove of nearly a century – to the work of Picasso and Léger. Does that time lag matter? Probably not in the scheme of things – John Currin’s updates of Lucas Cranach and Sanya Kantarovsky’s Matissean evocations are only a couple of examples of the endless re-visitations that painting feeds on. Gardner also shares a tendency highlighted recently by Paul Teasdale in frieze (‘What’s so funny?’, issue 167) for young painters to quote cartoons: is that Wilma Flintstone’s bun hairdo in The Rocks (2014)? Gardner is attracted to details like an isolated slice of lemon or the pink band of Elastoplast on an ankle seen in Torso Table (2014) – what Calvin Tomkins, writing on Murphy in the The New Yorker in 1962 diagnosed as a ‘style that lay midway between realism and abstraction, and an imagery that made use of commonplace objects presented in a bold manner’.
Three women sit or lie on a patterned sky-blue mat in Zig Zag (2014): one topless, one tan-lined and bikini-bottom-less, one enjoying a cigarette, all with eyes closed. It is an image of unabashed, indulgent joy. The girls remind me of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, the languid pair in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), fresh from a game of tennis and luxuriating in a sultry afternoon, but now updated with flashy trainers. What is it with Gardner and footwear? Is he a more restrained Rudolf Schlichter or a more relaxed Bruno Schultz? Another canvas here is called Superga (2014) and features a girl wearing the eponymous pumps. Leather boots appear in Torso Table, The Rocks and Wall Things (all 2013). Similarly fetishistic are the contorted limbs of the figure in The Rocks that mirror the erotic imbroglio of Christina Ramberg’s work. As a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where Ramberg herself was a student in the late 1960s, it is perhaps unsurprising that Gardner seems indebted to the artist and the work of her fellow Chicago Imagists.
One of the trio of girls in Zig Zag has put her book down. Perhaps she is reading Tender is the Night. These three figures reappear as cartoon outlines in Women in White (2014), recalling Picasso’s almost identically titled 1923 masterpiece. Then it clicks: the inspiration for Picasso’s Woman in White was supposedly none other than Sara Murphy. Gardner’s visions share the unalloyed optimism of the 1920s life the Murphys knew on the Côte d’Azur and, in their gentle hedonism, hint that such pleasures do not last.