Totally Wired and Cranked Up Really High (all works 2012), as per our cultural moment, is a painting from now with a lot of ‘then’ in it. Wrapped in a dirty-white found frame, the image revisits Modernist figurative deformation: a portrait of the artist, or an artist, replete with black beret and Picasso-style striped naval top, holding a paintbrush with a radioactive red tip. He has a Cubist cluster of seven eyes, an angled toothy grin consigned from De Kooning and a vast, pendulous pink nose that would warm Jim Nutt’s heart. The title, meanwhile, conflates amphetamine-friendly song titles from the late 1970s (by The Fall and Slaughter & The Dogs) that, more recently, have been repurposed as titles for music books. You need seven eyeballs to look back in this many directions at once, and these eyes look variously irritable, excited, crazed.
Paul Housley clearly has a complicated relationship with the omnipresent cultural past and how, or whether, one can advance in its shadow. Woman Showing Joy, exemplarily, revisits the bather motif beloved by Matisse and Picasso; but while the rosy-nippled, giant-footed, black-haired figure descends overtly from late Pablo, the speedy, soft-edged strokes are Housley’s own. The work has its own life, stemming from the cat’s cradle of misty white lines that suggest weird wings and, mostly, the minimalist expressivity of the face – a trio of simple black dots that somehow delivers a querulous little personality. This is not, in other words, a tribute but an admission of inescapable influence and proffered evidence of a heartbeat in Expressionism’s dusty cadaver – even if any figure painted like this now will always be a suspected replicant.
Not either/or with regard to authenticity, then, but somehow both at once: a double-mindedness that the title of You Ain’t No Punk, You Punk (from a Cramps lyric) gets at. Again, the painting seems to be a psychological self-portrait, one eye popping violently outward, the other black and dead – alive and not, like his art. The punk references, it becomes apparent, aren’t just nods to yesteryear but emblems of a still-possible attitude, a productively vitalizing refusal of reverence. (This even applies to his own work: according to the gallerist, Housley turned up at the gallery after the show was hung, brushes in hand, and reworked Green Thinker, adding to the pensive nude’s foot a row of toes that creeps onto the frame.) And the punk outlook here operates Russian Doll-style. Housley’s treating Modernism with punk insouciance only echoes what the Modernists did to their own recent past, to the still life and the bather motif. It’s a continuum of roughhousing, even if you suspect that nothing the artist makes will ever excite him as much as the punk records he heard as a teenager.
And, à la 1977, everything here comes back to slumberous Blighty. The last painting, if you read the show clockwise – one should note the inclusion of three small, semi-figurative sculptures about which I have nothing to say except that they’re a painter’s sculptures – is England Sleeps in Shakespeare’s Cheek. This Shakespeare has deep blue sockets instead of eyes, generally resembles a Flump and, as advertised, has a landscape in his cheek: a row of cypress-like trees and, doubling for a mouth, an elliptical shape that might be the Millennium Dome. There’s at once an irritation with heritage here – how the country still rides on past glories to which the present admittedly can’t compare – plus an amused lampooning and an ambient sadness. Getting all these things in sync via a few inches of muddied canvas depends on an understatedly controlled rawness that in turn requires a fair degree of mastery, and the result is that, even as they give his art its bristly character, Housley’s anxieties about painting’s condition finally melt into air.