There is an episode in Federico Fellini’s mischievous, epic filmed life of Casanova, Fellini’s Casanova (1976), in which our hero – ever preferring his role as a poet and Enlightenment scholar – is encountered on intellectual business in Switzerland. As two smiling, inscrutable sisters – nun-like, yet beguiling – go about their ghoulish entomological research, Casanova is overcome by a fainting fit. Outside, the lowering brown fog of a damp winter’s morning creates an atmosphere both intimate and oppressive, heightening tension yet suggesting somnambulism. A pin spears the squirming black length of a leech. There is the sense that some meandering, arbitrary enchantment is at work, sculpting the flow of circumstances, imposing the narrative logic of a dream.
It is a sequence that chimes with the world brought to life by the enfolding, disquieting, fabular paintings of Neal Tait. There is the same atmospheric intensity, the same close proximity of mannered humour to imagistic ambiguity. ‘Now is the discount of our winter tents’ – the exhibition title punning on a quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III, semantically rearranged into a punchline worthy of the late Ronnie Barker – is made all the more powerful by comprising just four untitled paintings. These are presented in a small square room, in which the daylight is both softened and flattened by white diaphanous blinds, and the mood of which is further stilled by the delicate greenish shade in which the walls have been painted. Placed centrally in the room is a bench (not made by the artist), the design of which is both slickly Modernist – a glossed grey seat and tubular legs – and rustically quaint: the backrests are made of raw timber, like lumber yard cast-offs, in shapes reminiscent of imagined hieroglyphics.
The effect of this installation is both immediate and subtle. One feels to have entered a place that was lying in wait, part enchanted glade and part Absurdist mise-en-scène. A fusion of informality and ceremony, genteel and enigmatic, it is the ideal setting in which to introduce the viewer to Tait’s art. Given time to ponder, one sees that the four paintings might suggest occurrences in a world that exists parallel to our own: a place of unspecified location, glimpsed at an unknown period in its history – although one feels to be observing scenes in a northern European territory, at some point between the late 18th century and the early 19th.
The connections in Tait’s art between appearance and reality are slippery: one is in a world in which ‘what might be’ and ‘what is’ are left, quite intentionally, in unresolved entanglement. Often Tait will work from images he has encountered in magazines or newspapers, draining them of their original meaning and allowing their shape, or the presence they appear to intimate, to dictate the evolving forms and narratives they assume in his paintings. He thus allows his brush and paint to lead him into places that, pictorially, they appear to seek out of their own volition. Shapes transform into further shapes, assume features, limbs, or give birth to other seemingly sentient beings.
In this, figuration and abstraction conflate to enable what seems like a spectacular fusion of fairy-tale illustration, the intersecting symbolism and realism of an artist such as James Ensor, the summery, talcum-powder-soft colours of Chagall, and keen-edged Surrealist enigma. Facing our bench, for instance, we see what looks like a copper pan being tended on an old-fashioned stove by an elderly woman, but with an Egyptian mummy-like figure in the central middle-ground and a recessed mewling face. To our right, is a painting in which what might be a vacant-eyed, crouching pilgrim is approached by a boy whose torso could be a ball of purple knitting wool; to the other side, a drama in which a strawberry, perhaps, and what one can only call a tearful crab apple make urgent procession within lemon-coloured undergrowth. And, lastly, a small painting, which seems to be of a shrouded glass or vessel, on a background the colour of a cloudless sky in early June.
There is an almost slapstick sense of comedy at work in these paintings, like the morbid humour of nursery rhymes, effervescent beneath the surface of their oddly archaic, portentous tableaux. It is a humour not too distant from that in the film director Tim Burton’s anecdotal nonsense poems, collectively titled The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy (1997) and featuring such memorably poignant couplets as (in ‘Brie Boy’): ‘Brie Boy had a dream he only had twice/That his full, round head was only a slice’.
It was difficult to leave the enchanted grove of Tait’s subtle, mesmeric installation. The four paintings on display achieved the impact of an epic survey of Tait’s art – in a manner not dissimilar to inhaling the precious extrait of an already intoxicating perfume. Once encountered, the paintings took up residence in some obscure fold in the mind – perhaps returning home, in fact, to the same psychological dwelling, on the crossroads between intention and intuition, from whence they came.