David has been a professional artist since graduating in 1981, when he won first prize in the Mid Wales Open. He has exhibited widely both in the UK and abroad and is represented by Philips Art Gallery. He is a lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Bolton and a PhD candidate at the Postgraduate Arts and Humanities Centre, Manchester.
In addition to his activity as an artist David has contributed writing and reviews to numerous artists’ projects and publications. He is co-director of Rogue Artists’ Studios CIC, the largest artists’ studios in the North of England.
David’s current work centres on the use of both personal and institutional photographic archives to produce sequences of paintings that address historical and political themes.
Works in the collections of Deutsche Kreditbank Stiftung Berlin, East Sussex County Council, Rank Xerox, Halliwell’s, Touchstones Rochdale and Steven Berkoff.
City as Lament: David Gledhill’s Urban and Suburban Paintings
by Lyndon Davies
One of the most unsettling aspects of David Gledhill’s urban and suburban townscapes is the total absence of human and animal life-forms. There’s nobody out there, nobody, I mean nobody at all, neither man nor woman, dog nor cat. You may not immediately notice this but eventually it becomes unignorable, even oppressive. So where are they, the erstwhile inhabitants of these overpoweringly recognizable delineations of the actual? Nowhere, exactly nowhere. In point of fact, it seems unlikely that they could ever have been there in the first place, and yet the scene reeks of them, it’s easy to imagine that they have just that very moment wandered out of frame.
So we’re left with the buildings and the spaces between them, the furniture of the intervening voids. Houses, pubs, gardens, factories, and garages, each with their little messages about class and function: here they all are at their most quotidian; at first glance, their most starkly drained-of-destiny. Here too, the fruitless forgotten little corners that normally pass well below the radar: a plug in a hallway, a gate, a back-alley, the gaping letter-box-like entrance to a car park, a bungalow. These paintings are not concerned with the dream-palaces, but with the inconsequential, workaday containers in which a portion of the species went about its ordinary ahistorical business, and the things that were useful or comforting to them in the performance of that business.
But all these (as I feel it) stand for more than the detritus of a concern which has been extinguished or pushed aside. For a start, there is something almost sentient about these objects: the more you look the harder it is to think of them as objects than as incarnations of something beyond – or inside – objectification. They are ghosts, perhaps, ghosts of themselves, ghosts with a stupefyingly insistent air of materiality, but they also invoke ghosts, specifically the spirits of the cancelled lives which inhabited and were inhabited by them. (Signs: an open window, the hint of a lit strip light, a gaggle of mannequins, a nakedly gaping gravel bin…). Or rather, since there are no phantoms to be seen, since everything is so immemorially solid and unambiguous, an observer might be tempted to account for their uncanny air by imagining that these objects embody rather than just invoke, the lives which preceded and then vanished into them, as the laurel tree both contains and embodies the translated nymph. That’s to say, they’ve become the lives themselves, exemplified at the instant of their annihilation, in peculiarly satisfying configurations, satisfying because so definitively poised, so richly, time-defyingly closed to business.
(In tune with this, there are moments, passing before Gledhill’s depictions of the “out there”, when I feel I am moving through a human body, through a light which has percolated through physiological tissues. The terrible intimacy of those doorways and windows, passageways; erotically introverted chambers; cloud-fat; the polypal outcrop of a shrub…)
This may sound rather a contorted way of speaking about paintings which border at times on the photo-realist, but an engagement with any artwork is always, to some degree, a question of fantasy, and for me, these images operate very powerfully on that level.
Of course, these are realist paintings, up to a point, that’s to say rich in unambiguous referential content. Recognition is immediate and, interpretatively speaking, there seems ostensibly to be nowhere else to go. Since everything is instantly identifiable and present at a surface without conceptual elsewhere, there is no obvious lure to a “deeper” identification. Their subject matter, as I’ve already said, consists of undistinguished corners of urban and suburban landscapes, locations that may or may not once have possessed a certain grandeur or significance, but, if so, have had it drained out of them by time and the crumbling of a particular social or material context. Locations, in other words, which stand or have fallen or been pushed to one side of the grand self-perpetuating ceremonies of power.
It’s apparent that, on the one hand, Gledhill is intent on preserving the essential inessentiality of these objective spaces, and one of his ways of going about this entails – on the face of it – removing himself expressively from the proceedings and working through a series of purely technical decisions. It’s important to remember that these motifs are taken from photographs, either the artist’s or someone else’s – that’s to say they’re already distanced by one or two degrees – so that these paintings are already images of images of reality. You could even say, taking into account their powerfully and self-reflexively constructed nature, that these are images of images of images of reality. The representation is achieved by a strictly orderly craft-like application of pigments, refusing all painterly/psychological autographic gestures. The colour range is radically restricted and non-naturalistic, a matter of ‘arbitrary’ aesthetic choice, unrelated to the physical realities of the subject in question and taking the form often of a kind of monochrome overlay, resistant to the pressures of subjectivity. On top of all this, by expunging the human figure from locations where you might reasonably most expect to find it, another of the more obvious incitements to emotional engagement – call it ‘human interest’, in which category you might include the viewer’s natural interest in how the artist imagines his fellow beings – is taken out of the equation. A series of decisions then, an application of processes which you could almost equally as well describe as a kind of layering, or distancing, as the surgical removal of anything which might resemble an interpretable depth or accretion. This sounds like another paradox, but in Gledhill’s art, as I’ve tried already to suggest, all decisions have startlingly paradoxical consequences.
That question of the use of the photograph, for instance, and particularly the photograph of a specifically undistinguished chunk of matter. A photograph, as Roland Barthes (another invoked ghost) has famously made clear, is never neutral, never simply a window onto reality. In the photographic moment the inchoate is transformed: pinned by the cross-beams of a scrutiny that is at once offhand and eternal, fleeting but assiduous, an invisibility becomes visible as a subject; an inconsequence acquires a potency which becomes substantial.
By the time it has passed through the prism of this painter’s copiously-mediated attention, the motif is no longer even available to the viewer as the messenger of a specifically insignificant authenticity. This is crucial, the continuous moment at which this quality is mislaid, is the point at which the drama of the drama-less comes to focus. That lost value is continually re-inscribed by the painter – at the same time that its irrecoverable loss is recorded – through what I can only describe as a theatrical, even operatic lament for its demise.
The resonance of this ‘lament’ is far-reaching: it penetrates what the viewer approaches, warily, as a referential given, creating an impermeable barrier within a surface which might have appeared initially to be porous, (that is looking straight through onto itself). In a process reminiscent of the mechanics of nostalgia, the viewer is magnetised by an interiority, a depth, which refuses absolutely to acknowledge them: from which they are barred, but to which, because barred, they are all the more intensely attracted.
The lament of a painter is, of course, completely silent, and one of the most astonishing things about these pictures is the depth of the silence that emanates from them. It’s as if, for Gledhill, at the moment when the shutter clicked, there was nothing left in the world but that. This is not the silence of the pregnant pause, as in the poetic theatre of Edward Hopper; nor is it the rational silence of enigma, as deployed in de Chirico’s ritualistic choreographies. It’s a silence absolute, single and monumental; a dumbness you can neither interpret nor inhabit; silence forever, silence that is going nowhere. Hypnotic.
So, of course, we interpret – where does the silence come from? I’m tempted to say, it’s the silence of last things; a silence which comes from the heart of matter, as the last thing that matter had to say about itself.
It could be the sound of a disaster which has passed, leaving behind it a kind of paralysed stupefaction. There is certainly something apocalyptic about these paintings, or rather it’s difficult not to read them as such when confronted by their exaggerated tonal effects, and the “overglazing” of colours suggestive of toxicity, as if relating to some sort of chemical and ecological catastrophe. Compositionally, too, these pictures are so tightly and so definitively wrought, you suspect that if ever a human being made a reappearance, the gravitational forces at work within the frame would inevitably crush it out of existence. (Having said that, let’s admit that there is one; one and one only, glimpsed through an office-block window: a woman at her desk, working at a computer. An arm, a shadowy head, part of a torso, that’s all, but there she is, carrying on as if nothing at all had happened. Who is she? Doesn’t she know she’s the only person left in the universe? She might be God, I suppose, or some kind of accident, or she might be the definitive sign we required that our fantasies have entirely missed the point: that nothing in fact has happened or is even likely to happen, however much the enormity of what hasn’t happened broods in the folds and at the margins of vision. On the other hand she may already be on her way out of the picture).
Faced with the massive silence of these paintings these are the kind of questions some viewers might feel compelled to wrestle with, although we can only speculate, of course, as to whether the painter himself has any desire to ask them. As I see it, Gledhill has carefully chosen motifs that guarantee a minimum of emotional involvement, that’s to say of ‘art’ in its sense of a site for psychological, social and economic identifications and valuations. And yet in their own way, as I’ve tried to describe, the paintings are dramatic, they set in motion a drama centered not only around effects of colour, scale, form, but even and most specifically around that astonishingly magnetic and denatured vacancy which they reveal, a vacancy supercharged not only with objective presence, but with a kind of existential potentiality, pre- or post-incarnate, spiritual, as well as narrative. In fact by means such as these the pictures almost end up reinventing the picturesque in the grand manner.
In fact, this art cannot help, by virtue of its artfulness, elevating its motifs out of the quotidian into the mystery, into the stream of form, narrative, history, and, of course, that’s a kind of betrayal, a betrayal of the fatelessness the motifs commemorate.
But it’s this betrayal, born of a commitment, an abandonment to the medium itself, (a medium which as the artist knows, is as tragically compromised as any other) which opens up a poignancy in these pictures, gives them their troublingly seductive power. Once seen, it’s difficult to shake them off – they become a part of your perceptual apparatus.