By Shand Higson (originally published in Mode-ART Nov 2011)
cicatrix \SIK-uh-triks, noun:
1. New tissue that forms over a wound.
2. Botany. A scar left by a fallen leaf, seed, etc.
“A new relationship can develop. But the cicatrix of the old one remains. And nothing grows on a cicatrix. Nothing grows through it.”
— Elizabeth George, Playing for the Ashes
The apparent serenity of Chris Anthem’s dress pattern paintings is belied by the physicality of their making. The manipulation of the paint laden with varnish on fragile paper – gouged and scored with graphite, take shape in no fewer than two days„ three days at most ..(”..or the paintings just commit suicide, they find their own existence tedious to themselves”) – is nowhere evident in his delicate, poised, intimate works. At least, that’s how it initially appears. On closer inspection, and you really do have to get close, his paintings rapidly shed their prettiness. The heads of recumbent figures erupt in bouquets of labial folds. Elegantly repoussoir bodies reveal their intestines, cradle their own kidneys. The Dionysiac abandon of his works’ content is always held in tension with the Apollonian clarity of its form, just as the glossy patina of the painting’s surface hides, like a repressed memory, the messy business of its creation. Anthem’s commitment not only to a kind of figuration but also to a labour-intensive process makes his seem anachronistic within the typically outsourced practice of many contemporary artists. his usual approach places in tension two modes of creation: the painted and the drawn. There is something of that formal looseness in the finished works, too: an atmosphere of delicately finessed playing-off of form and content. The forms that appear seem just-made, early stages of a kind of physical creation, still slick from the primordial soup, stilled in their metamorphosis by their own quick-drying matter. And despite the hardening of the paint across the surface, there is nothing final about the appearance of Anthem’s works. In a sense, they’re sketches that can never quite be brought to fruition, or ideas that never quite find the right words to be articulated, either through their horrifying truths or impossible suggestions.
It would be easy, though misguided, to see a political stance in Anthem’s assertion of an historically neglected material. Anthem’s work takes a poised and contemplative approach that gains sustenance from much earlier periods of art history. Anthem’s work returns to the unresolved questions of the past, employing perhaps the most ancient of motifs – the human body – as a means to explore and address questions of fundamental and trans-historical import. This description might seem to tie Anthem into a wilfully regressive practice, but it’s a mark of his unique qualities as an artist that both his formal and philosophical concerns, though ancient, seem renewed and revitalised in the strangeness of his work.
The delicacy of his given material is intrinsic to the meanings of Anthem’s works. The possibility of self-destruction lurks, perpetually in the fragility of the paper, as though tempting their own demise. This danger becomes meaningful, too. Works like Et in arcadia ego, with its curl of slim painting drawing the composition to a fevered crescendo, perform their own titles: death and destruction are there, even in this cradle of intricate beauty. Perhaps even especially here.
Given his works’ refusal to resolve itself into a single, determinable meaning, drawing has an unusual role within Anthem’s approach to art making. Unlike its conventional usage within the history of art, Anthem does not use drawing as a rehearsal for painting. This is a function of his commitment to the possibilities provided by the material itself, and his avoidance of the pre-emptively ‘finished’. Rather, his drawing can be seen as a parallel practice, something not inferior to but in concert with his better-known painting work. In other words, it’s all drawing – specifically, drawing’s associations with the exploratory, the private, and the experimental. In a drawing like En pointe, a scenario impossible to imagine taking material form – namely, a star of stretched legs enacting the ballet position of the title, which bursts out of a series of orifices; a fat penis slumps out too, a pearl of liquid emerging from its slit – is enacted. Partially resolved lines half-describe a form redolent of Hans Bellmer’s drawings after de Sade, but where Bellmer used the specificity of the drawn line to limn a pedantically detailed vision of sexual depravity, Anthem never quite allows his image to complete itself. He stops short just before language makes his imagery possible.
To claim that figuration died out in the wake of abstraction is to misunderstand the role of the human figure in art’s philosophical maturation. Anthem’s use of the human figure as a starting point in his work is a reminder that the best way we have of understanding ourselves is through ourselves. his work’s principal philosophical motor is the same as that of all art of the past: as the artist himself puts it, “How do you make an idea?” It is apparent that, whatever ideas Anthem purports to be exploring in his work, their crystalline articulation is by no means a priority – or, better, they’re ideas that can’t be conventionally articulated. In Fontoona (2011), a sort of grotto of the intestines is revealed as the spine of a woman/girl tendrils. Grotesque, part-figurative forms. In this way, Anthem’s work recalls Max Ernst’s Surrealist decalcomania from the early 1940s, in which intricate, mazy grottoes emerged via an automatic process (in his case, the squidging of wet paint on a surface by means of a sheet of glass). Anthem’s work has a significant kinship with Surrealism: its employment of aesthetic surprise – the sudden appearance of disturbing or sexually troubling imagery within an apparently innocent milieu – has visual parallels with his interest in Andre Breton’s ‘convulsive beauty’. And yet Anthem’s work eschews the rebus-like Freudianism of Surrealism at its most literal. Rather, his paintings employ a form of automatism and grotesquerie familiar from early twentieth-century art in order to probe a very contemporary array of anxieties.
The bodily distortions are a trace of a kind of mortal anxiety felt through and inextricable from the body. Anthem’s works enact, on sepulchral stages redolent of death, in poses redolent of life felt at maximum physical intensity (the legs strain and buck, en pointe), the body locked in – bound by - thought. Tensed, sweat-sheened, they lunge at the inexpressible, the impossible, seeming to perform Andrew Marvell’s lines in ‘The Definition of Love’:
MY Love is of a birth as rare
As ‘tis, for object, strange and high ;
It was begotten by Despair,
Shand Higson – first published in Mode-ART 2011