BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67

Spookie Knowledge

Pearl, London, UK

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 05 MAY 02

What an odd, apt pairing. In one room a wall scattered with 16 small, vivid paintings of birds, flowers and butterflies by the late Chuckie Lee Williams (who called himself, and is better known as, Painter Chuckie or Mr Painter Chuckie), and in the other a floor piece by Polly Apfelbaum that is as lovely as a virus under a microscope. The title of the show, 'Spookie Knowledge' (which was held in yet another new artist-run space in East London) is a quote from Painter Chuckie, who often inscribed his pictures in a skeletal script that murmurs manically in the margins like the ghost of a reticent Beat poet.

There's a dizziness lurking at the heart of both artists' work. In Painter Chuckie's images the dizziness is bright and heady, like an early day in spring, but it's complicated by the fervent, near-mad religiosity of the phrases and words he graffitied them with: 'psychic talent', 'Chuckie the genius', 'Christ talent' and 'true saint' (although one has the slightly more prosaic 'a bush of hardy geraniums flower blossom' scratched into the paint). The images themselves though are modestly cheerful: colourful, humble little birds cling anxiously to thin budding branches, flowers gaze hopefully at the sky and butterflies mingle gratefully with leaves and air. The drawing is blunt, unbalanced and throbs with energy; the paint - housepaint or acrylic - is scumbled, dry and, despite the fact that it is a little grubby, oddly luminescent. The pictures are made from the kinds of discarded materials you find on walks through dilapidated city streets: bits of uneven wood and stained old cardboard and paper, their edges frayed or broken. Painter Chuckie often worked on both sides of the support, as if his energy forced images to spill over the precipice of the support.

Apfelbaum's dizziness is slicker, bigger, bolder and somehow a little more knowing - a reflection, it is tempting to think, of the two artists' respective home cities. Painter Chuckie lived and worked in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the heart of the Deep South and the Bible belt; Apfelbaum lives and works in New York. Painter Chuckie created pictures in a frenzy of instinct and faith, Apfelbaum from a fusion of instinct and calculation - she must have thought long and hard about how to achieve the maximum impact with minimal means. She covered the floor with Big Bubbles (2000), a piece that comprises over 1000 dyed pieces of velvet cut into a shape that recalls a psychedelic spa or a strange storage jar - one that swells in the middle for no apparent reason. Weirdly, despite the fact that the gallery is on the ground floor, I almost fell over with vertigo when I entered the space. Big Bubbles is achingly bright at its edges - acid yellows and vicious greens - but fades into soft blues and reds and paler yellows and greens as it spirals towards the centre like water draining from a bath. It is one of three floor pieces inspired by the cartoon sisters Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup from the Powerpuff Girls, but not familiar with the reference, I let it go. I don't believe it matters: the piece is so visceral that working out its 'meaning' feels superfluous. Apfelbaum has described her work as 'fallen painting'. This one feels less like a fall from grace than an arrow straight to the heart of it - a major-key death knell ringing confidently from the gloom.

Painter Chuckie is mainly known for paintings of 'superstars' such as Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and Dolly Parton. Apparently he scripted and casted celebrities in imaginary movies and videos, which he then translated into paintings. When you relate this to Apfelbaum's transformation of cartoon characters into abstract spirals the aptness of their pairing becomes evident: it isn't just to do with the shared exuberance of the work but also the ways in which both artists have translated their reactions to the world into colours and shapes that follow their own obscure logic yet still manage to be both accessible and satisfying. It's not a wildly innovative approach, but it's still a strangely moving one. Spookie knowledge indeed.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.