Danish Departed: Paintings by Alastair Gordon

by Geraint Evans, 2013

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: quodlibet (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.

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 The System of Objects: “We are fascinated by what has been created…because the moment 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. 


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



Splinter, Paper and Tape: On Paintings by Alastair John Gordon

By Faith Amurao, 2013

On 23 September 2013, in the site of a former chapel of a Mission founded by Danish sailors, I first stepped into the Husk Gallery, Departure Arts Centre at Limehouse, London to view the Danish Departed exhibition, featuring work by its artist-in-residence, Alastair Gordon. His paintings of splinters, one ‘Falling’ and another ‘Rising’, made me recall the lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 430). When painting evokes the memory of poetry, I believe a miracle has taken place – the miracle of echoing insights uttered by a poetic voice from the past, drawing a parallel between a text and an image created by two different imaginations. It just goes to show that poetry is not dead, that its voices resonates beyond the page even into the space of a gallery, and that art has the capacity to provoke memory, inspiring a ‘look at what is going on inside the heart’ (Stanley Cavell, Little Did I Know (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 1). 

Gordon and I share a common interest in finding our inspiration for our artistic/literary productions in what we read. I quote in full here his thoughts regarding the relationship between reading and creativity: In System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard writes, ‘we are fascinated by what has been created because the moment of creation cannot be reproduced’. I read this book three years ago and this singular statement has stuck with me ever since. I also find Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality a regular go-to. In some ways, my painting is a similar enquiry into the world of the world of authentic fakery. I find myself looking for the hand of the author be it in a scratch found on the surface of a letter or the residual brush marks on masking tape left over after a painting has been completed. For me, there is a symbiotic relationship between what I read and what I paint. My research is driven by painting but it most usually begins with a text or story. Splinter Falling and Splinter Rising as a pair of paintings show two epistemological possibilities – a descent and, its opposite, an ascent – as such they speak of two, perhaps, parallel trajectories in life. 

The fact that they inspired the recollection of those famous lines by Eliot hints at not only their fragmentary nature but at the possibility that they can be collected, 'shored', against the monstrosity of derelictions, of the wasteland in every person's heart, and beyond the singular onto the general, the uninhabited city whose walls have been broken down and where only bits of stone, dirt and dust have settled on the ground. In this way, they commemorate a history where destruction and fragmentation occurred while gesturing towards a future of appropriation in which the fragment becomes a story of a future of either falling onto something or rising towards something else. 

The paintings do not spell out what the fragments are falling on to or what they are rising to but if the antique wood surfaces on which the painted wooden fragments are acknowledged as part of the meaning they convey, then another layer of a story is opened up – a religious aspect, particularly a Christian one in which the cross of the crucified Christ is laid bare. Stanley Cavell following Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, ‘The crucified human body is our best picture of the unacknowledged human soul’ (The Claim of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 430). I would suggest that these paintings remember that point in human history when the rest of a community failed to acknowledge a love before their eyes by virtue of being remnants, reminders of a larger whole, wooden pieces on which the Christ was crucified. Gordon’s paintings are grounded in the strong narrative of his research. In his autumn show last year, he worked with aural accounts and document archives of Departure. 

Thus, some of the paintings recollect the post-industrial life of dockland workers and sailors who would visit the site in need of shelter. In his current exhibition, he found it necessary to document the history of his studio practice. He informs me that, ‘I painted objects that appear at the beginning and end of my own creative process such as paper fresh from the sketchbook and used masking tape…[which is in itself a] new narrative...’ Gordon is interested in what remains from a moment in history whether momentous, such as the crucifixion described above, or trivial, such as the leftovers of tape and paper of a painting torn from a wooden backdrop. 

The event of a finished and unfinished painting as seen in his Sacrament series in his current exhibition, What You Will, Bearspace invites the viewer to imagine the possibilities of what could have been painted on the paper, suggesting that every painting is unfinished because of the interpretations imputed on to them, whether philosophical, imaginative or anything else. The possibilities are endless and yet paradoxically it has also ended with nothing and something – an offering or a sacrifice to the viewer to make something out of the nothing, giving us artistic licence to join in the creative venture, to participate in the making of art. By the time I saw the Vibac series, I had only partially acknowledged to myself the development of Gordon’s ideas on fragments, fragmentation and the collecting of such remainders. Gordon tells me that these group of paintings strongly refer to the Quodlibet tromp l’oeil painting that was widespread in Northern Europe in the 1600s. 

This painterly illusionistic technique literally translates as ‘what you will’ and was later inflected by visual artists to mean ‘as it falls’. In this appropriation finds the hint to the ‘accidental’ nature of Gordon’s paintings. The paintings of tape, particularly those in parallel to each other in Vibac XII, are a reminder of Barnett Newman’s abstract expressionist paintings two of which I first encountered at the Tate Modern a few years ago, Adam and Eve, with a difference – where Newman uses paint to highlight the alteration in perspective, subject and tone, Gordon’s painterly description of pieces of tape show the remnants of a painting while referring to the paintings that have been removed and discarded to leave something wholly new and as rich as what could have been presented had they been left alone.