Newcall Gallery

Thursday, October 2, 2008

20-08-08 | Not necessarily here, not necessarily now | Ruth Watson on Jungle Television

Not necessarily here, not necessarily now:
Anya Henis’ Jungle television at Newcall Gallery,
August-September 2008.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, one of the twentieth century’s great futuristic dystopias, also portrayed its opposite – a futuristic utopia – in his 1962 novel Island (island vs. world- do we detect a pessimist?) In the novel the main character finds himself on an island where daily life is organised quite differently to what he’s used to. Alongside the radical social reformations he encounters are some smaller ones, such as local parrots trained with the catchphrase ‘here and now, here and now boys’ that they squawk out wherever they land, which often seems often to be close to people in need of some helpful mantra. The phrase has been deliberately utilised to remind people of what the islanders believe they need to do to live a healthy life – to actively focus on the here and now. Infused with Buddhist ideals, Huxley’s Island conjures a pragmatic utopia that sits in an interesting counterfoil to the institutional horrors of Brave New World. Anya Henis’ seven paintings at Newcall Gallery would be unlikely candidates to be on show in Island’s gallery, although it’s something of a challenge to say exactly why. There are several outdoor scenes, one a skyscape of scudding clouds, lit with a duskish sky, titled innocuously Sunset. A small painting of a tepee would seem a cheery invocation of innocent childhood. Other paintings show fantastic architectures that seem vaguely aspirational and one small work shows a stage set, curtains open to reveal a field of flowers. Sounds harmless enough – so why do I think the inhabitants of Huxley’s island would not be happy?

The paintings concerned with architectures, or most often, their interiors, would seem to have their own strange logic. The largest painting in the show – Love Hotel – depicts a mĂ©lange of the almost-kitsch, like a hotel of a past decade (literally?) that has attempted to make a space that is simultaneously cosy and impressive. There’s a podium, some columns and planters, decorative nets and a feature ‘window’ in the centre of the painting that has either star-like or watery patterns. The paint itself cheerily mitigates against us believing that this is for real, having its own highlights and lowlights that don’t necessarily make the spaces sit quite where you expect them to be. The depicted space with its peculiar public-private mix makes you wonder about the people who have constructed it or use it – whatever their ideals, they don’t seem to expect to gel with anyone else’s. Or they ask us, how much do we actually recognise? There’s a teasing of tastefulness in operation, although not head-on like Judy Darragh, or plumbing one aspect like Saskia Leek. Henis gets close to a variety of almost-nice and just-wrong, moving from one non-specific place and non-specific time, to another.

The absence of people is palpable, creating a sense of stillness that draws us in to look closer at these non-specific places. One of the other interiors seems like a medieval cloister translated through a 1970s design magazine. The space of the painting isn’t one that can be navigated except by the eye, although there’s a sense of the real that tantalises. Titled Texas, the space is indeed a church building and was sourced from a photograph in an architectural magazine. Henis here seems more engaged with the paint than its source, the provenance of which has become attenuated, even lost. The name of the magazine, its year and country of origin, what actual function the building and for what religious group are all long forgotten, not collected, held on to or trumpeted as the artist’s freshly-minted arcana. Perhaps the paint alone has become a truer sign of the here and now. Another architecturally based painting (Untitled) is fey and oddly compelling, depicting a mosaic-clad space of much indoor-outdoor flow. Ceilingless, with an intense blue sky visible above the wall tops and with paving stones trotting through what might be water, there’s a sense of peeking into an Ottoman bathing house- had it been made in the recent past, outdoors, and built for effect rather than actual use. This image too was derived from a photograph of someone’s home, this time somewhere in New Zealand. Something was definitely lost in translation, by the architect and their client, I suspect the photographer too, and Henis happily continues the process. There’s a strange wall where a doorway leads off elsewhere that doesn’t quite convince, and in the foreground another wall is finished off in a manner that seems to be provisional. The whole thing appears like a tentative proposition, which in itself sits in an interesting tension with architecture. You don’t quite trust these buildings.

The tiny mosaics have been painted with a carefully light touch. Surfaces appear to be prioritised over structures, although for Henis, painting and architecture do have an entangled relationship as painting usually relies on walls and often rooms for its material support. These works do suit the freshly scrubbed-up seventies architecture of the Newcall gallery, with its occasional veneer feature and artificial compound ceiling. Perhaps expectations around contemporary constructions of space or place, the species of desirable spaces, have become too serious. The exhibition title Jungle Television conjures up some particularly specious spaces, although Henis’ work seems more fragile and elusive than the robust pleasures of an Elvis-like world. Back in Huxley’s Buddhist jungle, the birds could relax a little. Constant attention to the here and now is an impossible ideal, anyway, so in the meantime, why not go visit some other painted spaces where the mutable and the fey might just be markers to other possible realities.

- Ruth Watson, September 2008