Beyond the Grave
Painting Power, Painting Death
Gordon Cheung • Annie
Kevans • Hugh Mendes
Text by Craig
Private View: 8 Feb 6.30 - 9pm
'Let death and exile and everything that is terrible appear
before your eyes every day, especially death; and you will
never have anything contemptible in your thoughts or crave
anything excessively.' Epictetus, The Handbook.
Power, money and death seem to inhabit a world beyond everyday
life, provoking horror and fascination in equal measure. Though
we all might pine for a taste of wealth and omnipotence from
time to time, the rich and powerful smack of evil, as if success
stripped the over-ambitious of their souls. Saddam Hussein,
Elvis Presley, Bill Gates and even Andy Warhol have all achieved
some level of immortality, and for that they have become objects
of both contempt and desire. A dictator, a rock star, an entrepreneur
and an artist make a strange group, but all of these guys
seem to have licked life's great inevitable, and that makes
them both obscene and irresistible. It's an illusion, of course
– everyone's the same heap of worm-nibbled bones in
the end. Yet religion and celebrity have a knack of generating
great piles of gold and power because we have never learned
to cope with our own mortality.
So what's a humble painter to do? Hugh Mendes, Gordon Cheung
and Annie Kevans create portraits that create a bridge, however
tentative, between the intimacy of one life and the vast impersonality
Gordon Cheung's portraits from Forbes magazine's
list of ‘Top-Earning Dead Celebrities' – entertainers
who continue to rake in the cash from beyond their graves
– convey a similar mix of dread and fascination. The
fact that these corpses live on as money machines seems like
an infuriating waste – some heir or copyright holder
is benefiting from this strange combination of consumerism
and necrophilia. Painted in hazy, halo-like sprays of pigment
in lurid, sci-fi colours on old copies of the flesh-toned
Financial Times , these portraits seem to exist on an alternative
planet where taste and morality fled for the world next door.
series of boyhood portraits of history's more notorious dictators
invite us to wonder what went wrong along the path to manhood.
Presumably, these men all began life as the same sweet, saucer-eyed
boys in need of a cuddle from time to time. Did they choose
their fate or did something incomprehensible lead them to
a life of supreme nastiness? Kevans paints with delicate washes
and soft, fleshy tones to suggest that something fundamental
might be at work, as if evil were an ever-present thing, inhabiting
lives almost at random. In her new work, she continues to
explore the strangeness of fate through portraits of history's
more unlucky – or unsavory – characters.
has been painting scraps of obituaries over the past few years,
a process that began soon after the death of his own father.
Obituaries condense a life into a few column inches and a
single image – a scrap of newsprint that becomes a heavy
token, a small part for the whole that ricochets somewhere
in the eternity of our collective memory. Mendes creates something
like an icon from these everyday events, a small, powerful
painting that glows with concentrated melancholy and beauty.
Our mortality remains a steadfast wound on our hearts. Annie
Kevans, Hugh Mendes and Gordon Cheung forge small objects
of beauty and longing from this incurable ache.
Burnett is a freelance writer and
assistant editor of the v&a magazine. He is a frequent
contributor to publications including Frieze, Art Review and
Art Monthly. Craig Burnett is the author of Jeff Wall (Modern
Artists Series) published by Tate Publishing 2005.
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8 Feb – 7 Mar 2006
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