‘I Want! I want!’ 

Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, 15th August – 27th September 2003

If you asked anyone to associate a period in art history with the terms Modernism and Romanticism, my guess is the early 21st century wouldn’t feature high on many people’s list.  Nevertheless, a perverse irony of the last few years has been that whilst the world appears to be sliding into the political, social and environmental abyss, the more one notices an increasing tendency amongst some artists to retrieve the visual legacies of the romantic and the modern, leading to the not-altogether-ironic retooling of high modernism - notable in sculpture - and of the romantic picturesque, particularly amidst the recent boom in contemporary painting. Modernist and romantic utopianism, victims of the postmodern, are being resurrected within the surviving traditions of modernist art, leading, weirdly enough, to a return of an aesthetics of affirmation in contrast, and perhaps in reaction to, a more generalised contemporary mood of cultural pessimism.

‘I Want! I Want!’ isn’t ignorant of such contemporary sensibilities, taking its title from William Blake’s 1793 illustration depicting a man climbing a ladder to the moon, a celebration of boundless desire in the face of the seemingly impossible.  The Blake reference is a smart gesture, recalling as it does romanticism’s roots in an epoch of nascent individualism and social revolution, whilst also hinting at the ambiguity and disillusion of the romantic experience, in which heroic notions of creativity and individuality, and the imaginative potential of human consciousness, could too easily degenerate into subjective escapism and self-regarding fantasy. It’s of course the degenerate image of romanticism that tended to survive, particularly in the intractable popularity of the romantic landscape, and it’s this clichéd and sentimental version of romanticism that many of the artists in ‘I Want!’ flirt with. What’s interesting is that in most cases, an ironic sensitivity to the inbuilt redundancy of romantic escapism is balanced by a wilful and headlong embrace of its intoxicating effects.

Dee Ferris’ glitter-adorned paintings of distant figures set in lush landscapes exemplify this trouble; kitschy, lurid paintwork sets beautiful people in idyllic settings; viewed through an opening in the surrounding foliage, the figures are silhouetted by the humid brightness that threatens to obliterate them and the view of the classical and gothic buildings that lie beyond. Revelling in their camp special effects Ferris’ paintings nevertheless manage the curious feat of denying the viewer access to these seductive scenes, through the saccharine overdose of her palette and an oppressive luminosity that hides more than it reveals. It’s a strangely unpleasant sensation, both violent and innocent, that mutely criticises the desire for an imaginary ‘elsewhere’ whilst pandering to it.

If Ferris’ images are in some way troubling, it’s because they turn from the romantic to the melancholic, rehearsing the retreat from euphoric affirmation of the present into passive nostalgia for a lost arcadia. In similar vein, Christopher Orr’s paintings sets groups of figures and cute animals adrift in an indefinite greenish fog that sometimes offers hints of a coherent verdant space, but more often serves to isolate the protagonists, who seem emerge from the pea-soup green like recollections from the faded pages of old issues of National Geographic; earnestly anthropological and redolent of a more confident period of exploration and discovery. Orr’s disarticulations of figures and space suggest a fragmentary and eroded place of memory, both sentimental and angst-ridden: If the romantic subject moved between the extremes of centred subjectivity and the loss of self associated with the sublime, Orr’s paintings describe an intermediate no-man’s-land, in which the subject lacks the energy of either.

Other artists in the show probe different intersections of the failure of the romantic imagination; Paul McDevitt’s drawings portray scenes of grandiose and improbable moments of aesthetic contemplation – interstellar gas clouds, strange colourful profusions hanging in orbit above the earth, firework displays above dodgy Henry Moore-like sculptures in a landscape – all rendered in hyper-laborious colour pencil and biro. McDevitt’s conceit playfully deflates art’s pretended access to the sublime, only to reaffirm it in the fantasies he depicts, and in the dogged, almost transcendentally futile act of rendering them. McDevitt’s deferment nevertheless holds the potential of aesthetic experience at arm’s length, though his slick wall painting, a mass of amorphous, indefinable organic elements and abstract gestures, fashionably wise to the subtlety of contemporary graphic culture, opens a channel between fresco and graffiti, and a more unselfconscious commitment to aesthetic pleasure and potential. Dan Howart-Birt’s ‘All of Your Skies’, 2003, spells the phrase ‘Christmas in New York Summer in Maine’ in a four-season cycle of suspended dried flowers. The romance of other places, transatlantic sophistication, endless vacationing and east coast gentility, is once again placed as something lost, unattainable; Howard-Birt’s sentimentality is both fey and knowing, swooning with the glamour of a bohemian past where the artworld always seemed to be having more fun.

If the romantic vista is, with these artists, figured as a self-conscious alienation from the past, the theme of a no longer innocent natural environment allows for the melancholic to invade the present; Axel Antas, Henna Nadeem, Adam Pointer, Clive Jackson and Michael Samuels are less preoccupied with memory and time, concerned rather with technology’s and culture’s negation of the natural, and implicitly, the terms of romantic possibility. Antas’ animations, line drawings and photographs offer the a picturesque stripped of any incident, warmth or anticipation, cut through with a dry, unnervingly apocalyptic humour; similarly Samuels’ picture-perfect models of desert islands - all flock grass, model trees and shimmering resin waters – are glumly mounted on DIY workbenches. Clive Jackson’s prints of ones and zeros translate video stills of bucolic waterfalls into lifeless digital code, whilst Nadim splices magazine images of wilderness through the decorative grid of Islamic patterns, and  Pointer’s digital graphics finds remnants of natural life amongst the hard lines of concrete jungles.

A character in Hal Hartley’s 1992 Simple Men declares; ‘There’s no such thing as adventure and romance – there’s only trouble and desire’. Modernism and romanticism only made sense if you believed in adventure and romance, but art can’t substitute for the absence of that sensibility in the wider world, which is maybe why the romantic always figures in ‘I want!’ as something already lost or continually deferred. Art is good at causing trouble and desire, but what this becomes depends on what you do when you leave the gallery, just as much as what you want when you enter it.


First published in Art Monthly no back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated