18 March - 16 April 2016
18 March - 16 April 2016
Willem Weismann explains an old practical joke from his native Netherlands: ‘look at the squashed nose in this book’, you say, showing someone the open spread. As they peer in close to see, you snap the book shut on the nose. Just so, Weismann’s painting trammel wittily between image, process and reality. Just so, you are lured in – typically by a harlequinade of inventory and colour – only to realise that the scenario shown is some sort of end game for the world. But also, typically, it’s difficult to get overly stressed by this: the slightly kooky figures in their rainbow splendour are hard to take seriously as tragic figures; it’s only a slap on the nozzle, after all.
In fact, there was a lot of close peering into books in Weismann’s show at The Nunnery last year. He was implicitly comparing them with paintings: the same feeling of a dated medium, the same one-on-one artist grappling with his means of expression at desk or easel, the same reader /viewer need to slow down to take in the result, the same net-provoked tendency not to do so. Clearly, he felt a common cause, and though books aren’t prominent in Moonblinking, it’s evident that Weismann still values the ancient pattern of individualist creation with the hope of creating engaged individual responses.
As you approach Cabin, there’s a fairly typical Weismann in the window, facing out. A character, bordering on caricature, stares through binoculars. Is he spying on us? Is he surveying the scene, more benignly and a little optimistically, for visitors to the show? Or is he, as the painting’s title, ‘Signs of Life’ suggests, scanning a post-apocalyptic scene? Whichever way, you might think him an odd fellow, scratching an obscure symbol in the sand, equipped with battered travel case and clunky old mobile phone, wearing a baseball cap with a binocular-length peak and a multi-coloured top more like a pinafore than a shirt – and which has actually served as the palette on which he’s put the colours for the painting. That last move is normal in Weismann’s world, reminding us of where we are. Weismann dreams up his scenarios in the studio, he doesn’t take them from photographic sources or models, and so the inclusion of the palette, which occurs in various playful ways, serves to make his whole self-contained system transparent. In pointing to the painting as a painting, it allow us to read that garment / palette as clothing, as abstract patterning, as paint made explicit, as an index of the painting as a whole. That’s the move which Tom Morton has identified [i] as lampooning those who speculate on the ‘death of painting’. The paintings are mocking the demise supposedly faced by the medium.
If you’ve seen Weismann’s work before, though, you’re in for a conk-squish of surprise when you enter the gallery. The paintings are dark. They use black oil only, with glimpses of bare canvas serving as light. Perversely, as it seems, Weismann has decided to see what’s left of his signature style when its most prominent feature – those slightly crazed edge-of-clashingchromatic blitzes suggestive of slight colour blindness – are removed. There are still blobby signs that Weismann has wiped his brushes on the canvas, but they merge into the gloom – if you weren’t looking for them, you wouldn’t spot them – and they could be self-parodic, for what’s the point of a palette with only one colour on it?
Goya, of course, is the artist most famous for a move to black paintings, but we don’t need that precedent to read these as subjects dark in spirit as well as matter. The first painting inside is hung to act as the back of the window painting, and it shows the same looker-out in reverse: we are in his place, his accoutrements are spread before us. But we also seem to have moved forward in time: it turns out that, if he did observe signs of life, they were those of a terminal trauma about to overtake him. Here he lies frazzled, his head blown clear. It’s blackly comic to see how much more than a bashed muzzle he had coming to him.
The blackness also has a charred logic – consistent, incidentally, with the coal-sourced Old Holland Black which Weismann uses – in the show’s return to the theme of books. ‘Burned Bookshelf’ reminds us of a whole history of censorship and political repression, though not – says Weismann – in quite the way it used to do: the knowledge within is likely not destroyed now, it lives online. But there is a sense of the funeral pyre for the sad times faced by books themselves. Suitably, then, one of the attractions of such dark-hued paintings, says Weismann, is precisely that you can’t make much of them on the screen: they’re a blow for the offline world.
No wonder, then, that the third black painting shows a man slumped on his desk in the clichéd pose which cartoons use to signals abjection. And yet, even in this dark monochrome land of burnt futures, it’s hard to feel the trauma. You might be reminded of the Black Knight in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. He claims, when he loses an arm, "Tis but a scratch", hops to the fight when down to one leg, and fights on even when limbless, still screaming threats: “Come back here and take what's coming to you! I'll bite your legs off!"). It’s as if Weismann is testing out the same spirit: “Take away my colours, remove my palette’s purpose, burn my art books and blow my head off, why don’t you? I’ll show you there’s life in painting yet!”
[i] ‘Tom Morton on Willem Weismann’, Bart 2009