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Danish Departed: Paintings by Alastair Gordon

Alastair Gordon’s recent work strongly references a tradition of illusionistic painting that proliferated in Northern Europe from about 1600. Indeed, on first inspection, his use of unprimed wood grain grounds onto which an array of selected objects are depicted, ‘pinned’ or ‘taped’ in low relief, seems to align itself with a specific form of illusionism:qu odlibet (what you will). The quodlibet genre had little of the allegorical purpose of other illusionistic still life subjects and could be read simply as a grouping of related objects that reflected the character or beliefs of their owner.

However, it is clear that Gordon sees far more potential in this stylistic approach, a view shared with Lucy McKenzie, whose recent exhibition at Galerie Micheline, Antwerp (2012) appropriated and reinvigorated the quodlibet to investigate the way in which artists utilise their source materials. The starting point for Gordon was the history and architecture of Departure and Husk, where he has been a resident artist for the past 12 months. For example, the beautifully crafted organ that dominates the gallery points to the building’s original purpose - that of a Danish Seaman’s hostel and mission built in 1959. The illusionistic depictions of nautical instruments, maps and fragments of wood, so prominent in his recent work, resemble a partial or incomplete inventory that seems to reference the building’s past.

The art historian Wolfgang Born has proposed that the popularity of illusionistic painting during the 17th Century and the propensity of artists in the North to objectively observe and depict things as they are, rather than illusionistic visions of the celestial realm,developed in parallel with the spread in the popularity of the cabinet of curiosities that “...supplied the answer to a widespread, passionate interest in the unknown, one barely satisfied by the natural sciences, then in their infancy...” 1.

With this in mind, Gordon’s faithful representations and compositions might be understood within the context of the collection, referencing the theatrical spectacle of the cabinet of curiosities or perhaps, more pertinently, contemporary museum display where an assortment of artefacts are presented with both apparent objectivity and through the subjectivelens of the curator. Indeed, Lisa Corrin writes: “The language of the museum has become such an intrinsic part of our unconscious experience that we take mediation for granted.” 2.

Postcard and Letter, 2013, Oil on wood, Approx. 17 x 12cm

The objects that Gordon depicts are defined by their age - a worn map, hand-written letters or fragments of reclaimed wood - which we might assume to have been salvaged from the numerous Danish ships that used the Port of London in the 1950s and early 1960s. Objects such as this are infused with nostalgia. Susan Stewart has argued that, “Within the development of culture under an exchange economy, the search for authentic experience and, correlatively, the search for the authentic object become critical.” 3.

This notion of authenticity is central to Gordon’s enquiry. I find myself looking for evidence of the craftsman’s hand on the salvaged wood or the singular mark of an unknown author on a postcard or letter, as Jean Baudrillard wrote in of creation cannot be reproduced.” 4. These objects also act as witnesses to events that we have not and cannot be part of; indeed, Susan Stewart argues: “We need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that only exist only through the invention of narrative.” 5. And that narrative is shaped not only by the objects’ temporal distance from their source of origin but also by their place within the collection.

Gordon reinforces a sense of nostalgia with the depiction of pre-satellite/pre-GPS technologies: the sextons, compasses and paper charts conjure up an outmoded and arguably romantic vision of the seafarer. More precisely, they point to a moment of transition and decline in London’s maritime history. Within the context of Husk, at one time the mission’s chapel, the effectively obsolete instruments and fragments of wood seem to reference the world of the dead. The employment of tromp l’oeil and its ability, in Stewart’s words to “suspend animation” and “explore the cognitive boundary between displays of death and displays of life” seems apposite. 6. These artefacts are the tangible traces of the departed.

And yet, despite the meticulous nature of Gordon’s representations and the sense of authority communicated by their display, the historical veracity of this collection is in constant doubt. This sense of doubt is partly supported by Gordon’s own research into Departure’s past and the discrepancies he has found between the present community’s aural accounts and the building’s archival records. But perhaps it is also exemplified by the range of wooden supports employed in the work, from the timber remnants that Gordon has salvaged from Departure’s cellar to the marine ply panels that have been fabricated to order. The implication being that the former is imbued with a sense of authentic historical narrative whilst the latter is a mere allusion.

Ultimately, this is a group of images that oscillates between artefact and artifice and yet provides Departure with a persuasive, if speculative, collection of secular relics.

By Geraint Evans, 2013

1. Wolfgang Born: ‘Still-Life Painting in America’ 1945 cited in M L d’Otrange Mastai: ‘Illusion in Art, Trompe l’Oeil A History of Pictorial Illusionism’, Abaris Books New York 1975 p153-154

2. Lisa Corrin: ‘The Greenhouse Effect, Serpentine Gallery 2000 p44

3. Susan Stewart: ‘On Longing, Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection’, Duke University Press 1993 p133

4. Jean Baudrillard: ‘The System of Objects’, reprinted Verso 1997 p76

5. Susan Stewart: ibid p135

6. Susan Stewart: ‘Death and Life in that Order in the Works of Charles Willson Peale’ in John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (eds): ‘The Cultures of Collecting’, Reaction Books 1994 p214


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