ID Smear text by REBECCA BAILLIE
Almost without exception, the paintings in this selection of ‘ID Smear’ depict single isolated figures rather than bodies intertwined. Perhaps revealingly, two figures do appear – one as a shadowy trace of the other – in the predominantly black painting, Shadow. Carrying awareness that our most complex interior states can be traced back to bodily links and to the severance of such links, Andrew Litten seeks to assuage feelings of separateness through attachment. In this exhibition he explores attachment in two ways: through connections housed within an individual self, and through the visceral and dependent relationship that exists between an artist and their artwork. The work Future Adult well exemplifies this idea. On the one hand, I interpret the piece to be a self-portrait of Litten as a very young child, perhaps even as a baby. By presenting himself in isolation at a time that was closer to the unique connectivity experienced within the mother’s body does not induce pain as pointedly as the images of the adult artist alone. There is freshness and playfulness to the picture – that recalls a toy – of a boy by him self; it is clear that the figure has not yet endured aloneness and that he is neither distant from, nor humiliated by, primary need. On the other hand, Future Adult is literally the artist’s ‘art baby’, created and then given the faculties to move through life independently. Litten gives the work caster wheels to allow it to move away from him, but at the same time, adds mirror plates to reveal that he struggles to renounce his attachment, and that ideally, would like to hold on.
Future Adult, like Woman With Bird and Adolescent, highlights Litten’s interest in the ‘construction’ of a picture. In the case of Woman With Bird and Adolescent he does so intellectually rather than practically – as a framed picture hanging on the wall accompanies the painted portrait – by including an artwork within an artwork. Philosophically, the question of what it means to be an artwork, initially raised at the turn of the twentieth century, is highlighted here once more. By using boxes, envelopes, old board, thick wood block and metal plates in place of canvas, Litten draws our attention to the fact that even when subverted, art is a language providing an element of external structure necessary to expose the internal chaos and disorder of emotions. Impressively, at times, Litten needs little more than a few brush strokes to animate the inner workings of complex psychic life. This is the case for two of his paintings , Without Purpose and Being Nowhere; the figure in the latter, Without Purpose along with that in Alcohol Now, despite their sparseness of representation, look remarkably like Litten himself. Through the works’ titles the artist reveals an interest in existentialism and in the notion that philosophical reflection begins with everyday human activity. Engulfed in darkly painted backgrounds, Litten’s figures, like those of Alberto Giacometti before him, unsettle the viewer, look outwards and forcefully ask the question, what does it mean to be a lone body existing in a space?
The blackness of many of the works in ‘ID Smear’ reminds me of the medieval belief that the cause of melancholy stems from an imbalance of humours in the body, and in particular, from an overwhelming presence of black bile. In his acute understanding that our emotional lives and physical existences are inextricably linked, Litten shares more in common with earlier ancient and medieval ways of considering the body rather than with classical modes of figure representation. As is pointed towards in the title of the exhibition, ‘ID Smear’, personhood for Litten is best understood via physical bodily functions over which we have little or no control. Similar to the American artist Kiki Smith, Litten uses the suggestion of physical pain and bodily leakage as revelatory of psychic torment. The paintings Some Pissing Old Codger, Lonely Wank and Instructor depict bodies seeping urine and semen, and shedding pubic hair. This recurring theme of bodily leakage suggests physical fragility, as well as serving as an ongoing reminder that we are emotional beings – our minds and hearts are as vulnerable as our bodies, and although we try to contain our feelings, they often spill out all around. Whilst the gesture of wanking makes clear that some of Litten’s figures are intended as male, in general his naked fleshly models appear sexless, which is not to say that sex is unimportant here. At the same time as balancing male-female duality, Litten makes attempts to dissolve it: the blood red – often used as background colour – could equally reference a woman’s menstruation as it does the spillage of a man’s blood in war.
As a further interesting ‘male’ interpretation of a previously ‘female’ investigated subject, Litten has constructed At Home With His Unfinished Aloness. Although the title reeks of great significance, I am tempted to re-title the piece Homme Maison, in acknowledgement of the revealing comparison to be made with Femme Maison by Louise Bourgeois. Interestingly, when Bourgeois made her iconic paintings and lino cuts on this theme during the 1940s, and then again in sculpture in the 1990s, all the while the image depicted was of a fleshy female body with her head and upper torso replaced by a house. In the case of Litten’s piece, it is the head and upper torso that remains, whilst it is the lower body, the sexual and physically capable body that is replaced by house. Litten’s house appears unstable; it is not the heavy and durable weight as is presented in the work of Bourgeois. The man and the house exist together more awkwardly. They do not, whether negatively or positively so, marry organically to become the dual creature that Bourgeois called the Femme Maison. The combination of the man and the house is obviously more constructed, built to reveal the artificiality, even the danger, of a lone male figure hidden inside a home. Both the front, and the reverse of At Home With His Unfinished Aloness show that the man’s head and upper torso are to be viewed through the parameters of a screen. It is as though the figure feels only as present as a virtual projection, somehow untouchable and experiencing complex ideas that must be stored away in the closed draw of the assemblage. Overall, there is a frustration and fragility to the piece, the sense that the combination of home and a lone male is unsustainable, that the scene could be easily damaged or, on a whim, completely destroyed.
Similar to the vulnerable, open from all angles house assemblage, Litten’s work on boxes exemplifies the idea that our bodies are imperfect containers tending to leak outwards beyond our control. The traditional comforting notion that a box keeps its contents safe within is completely dismantled; instead, the box is flattened to become totally exposed. In the same way, the figures painted onto these boxes appear totally at the mercy of the viewer’s eyes, even to the degree that I feel my line of sight transforming into arrows that pierce the naked skin. It is as though making art for Litten is akin to a painful addiction; he must do it in order to alleviate pains of isolation. But, in doing so, he creates a new attacker, in this case, the viewer. In one of the paintings done on a blood red ground, there is a figure with arms open wide – this is St. Sebastian totally unprotected before the first arrow strikes. Similarly, in Walk Out, the figure appears to creep away from safety and towards danger; perhaps he emerges from a cave to confront strange and intrusive more ‘civilised’ peoples, perhaps he unwittingly steps into the front line of fire, or perhaps the painting records the first steps taken towards freedom that have come too late after the damage inflicted by a concentration camp or solitary confinement. This is the genius of Andrew Litten, that with little more than a cardboard box, a one colour background and a single, minimally painted figure, his work unleashes the imagination and sets the mind raging to somehow understand the boundless complexity of human existence.
Considering his work as a prolific oeuvre that extends beyond the parameters of this particular show, Litten is considered as a striking innovator with an awareness, that, in the words of Virginia Woolf, ‘masterpieces are not single and solitary births: they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice’. His gestural painting style is at once childlike and aggressive, as though he mixes the machoism and anger of Willem de Kooning with the innocence and curiosity of Chaim Soutine or Alfred Wallis. Like Wallis, Litten’s use of uneven pieces of board and other surfaces are reminiscent of altarpieces; he thus imbues his works, already in possession of a strong earthly and object quality, with a spiritual and otherworldly dimension as well. The religious aspect that seeps from Litten’s work recalls the notion of art constructed as an object of worship, and the paintings of Francis Bacon. With a face smeared and disfigured by the artist’s brush, Paranoid Man in particular recalls the practice of Bacon. As in the work of both artists, tensions and frustrations writhe between visceral bodily needs and more heavenly aspirations. Such are poignantly illustrated in the painting Boy Thinking of Flight, in which a boy sits with a Christ like figure above him and his willy dangling below. By contrast, Machismo Time, depicting a man mimicked by the faces of two uncontrollable and blood thirsty dogs, for me, acts as a warning – here is the same danger as is visualized by the Glasgow based artist Peter Howson –- we encounter a human being for whom the mind/body dichotomy no longer rages, as physicality has annihilated any trace of the spiritual.
In a similar way, Man With Bib repels and repulses the viewer. The combination of latex and hair with a baby’s white cotton bib is disturbing to the upmost degree; coarse hair and man-made latex bring adult sex to the table where the dependent infant feeds. The states of innocence and experience are therefore thrust together in a way that questions if one is indeed separate from the other. By this, do I mean that the man, grotesque and beastly, continues to require spoon-feeding? Or is it because the man was never cared for, because his innocence was not protected, that now, similar to the figure in Machismo Time, he has grown unable soften desperate physical impulse using well-developed faculties of thought and love?
Returning to the theme of flight, the series of digital drawings created with an iPad called Drugs Combination brings to mind a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Each work incases, in the first instance, a solitary figure within an almost psychedelic dual colour background and beyond that, within what in the literal sense appears to be a large comfy armchair. However, quite quickly, the static and restful sides of the armchair begin to flutter and move as they transform into wings before the viewers’ eyes. There is a solidity and heavyweight to the seated figure, a sense of boredom as they are grounded by life’s limited wisdom. Indeed, wings, for the artist, can often symbolize frustration as they provide insight into the experience of artistic limitation; artists interested in immaterial ideas often struggle to convey abstract subtleties using crude earthly materials. Nevertheless, Drugs seems to embody a moment of absolute potential, a glimpse of human resistance as they fly upwards to become free from the burden of anxiety. Is the suggestion that drugs enable us to transcend earthly limitations? Somehow, such a suggestion does not ring powerfully enough when looking at these paintings. Instead, I imagine that the release and the freedom that the archangel wings and kaleidoscope colours symbolise is actually death or, namely, a new birth and the beginnings of an existence no longer bound by the demands of everyday.
Although referencing an old lady suffering from dementia who repeatedly asks her way home, Lost lady is beautiful and celestial in its painted appearance. The work well embodies the necessary marriage between physicality and spirituality, as well as the bond between hope and despair. In a fantasy twist, the whole cosmos becomes this woman’s home. The lady’s rectangular shaped body is awkward, appearing heavy and oversized as her head is forced to the side by the picture plane, as though her neck has been broken and she is already dead. By contrast, the background, silver metal plate shines through the heavenly blue paint making the woman ethereal, floating and eternal in life.
For a split second, when walking around ‘ID Smear’ and looking at these challenging works, you may wish that Andrew Litten would shut tight his boxes, seal up his envelopes and come over to tell you that everything will be ok. But this initial response is followed by the realisation that neither Litten himself nor his artwork are here to comfort or to answer questions. The beauty of this work is to present honest, and paradoxical insight into the notion that we all exist here together, alone, and without purpose.
By Rebecca Baillie 2013