Widely Absurd

Hundred Years’ inaugural show: Widely Absurd, is the first of a series of shows wanting to explore the concept of “absurdity” and people’s resulting struggle for happiness. We live in a time of irresolvable contradictions, where the urge of being happy -at all costs- profoundly differs from our system’s constant pressures for consumption, success and competition. As a result, depression, unhappiness, addictions, anxiety and violent behaviour are the alienating disorders that we have to put up with.

This exhibition looks into the work of seven London-based-artists: Joseph Popper, Mark Rathmell, Cat Roissetter, David Shillinglaw, Mark Stringer, Jazmin Velasco and Mark Woods, to explore their different approaches into the conscious/unconscious acceptance of the dominance of absurdity. Although their artistic conceptions greatly differ from each other, they all join in the tragicomic idea of absurdity: amusing and entertaining initially but, if sustained, disturbing or even repulsive.

According to the dictionary something “absurd” is something “wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate”. In the arts, “the Absurd” is a notion that can be easily traced back through the whole art history but it is during the first half of the XX century that it would become crucial. Through avant-garde art movements such as Dada, Surrealism, Expressionism, Pop, Existentialism or the Absurd Theatre … “absurdity” became the master plan of an art determined to subvert the official codes of values. For those artists “absurdity”, and its synonyms -irrationality, eccentricity and rarity-, was the only possible way out of the absurdity of their own contemporary worlds. Today, more than ever, “absurdity” keeps playing an essential role in our rather dysfunctional societies, and it persists as a key ingredient in the body of work of many artists.

Joseph Popper‘s films and photographs show an existentialist/determinist interest in the human condition and the importance of the individual action in the reach for the impossible. The odd characters that inhabit his unexpected but familiar worlds are caricatures, funny impersonations of himself, involved into improvised technological affairs. The artist turns into passionate pagan heroes (athletes, astronauts, explorers, inventors) entirely committed to the search of a high and authentic life purpose. However, the “foolishness” of their missions soon dissolves the tints of humour into pathetic spectacles of inadequacy. While his sophisticated sci-fi settings and objects reveal their cheap and handmade real nature, his contemporary heroes will turn into troubled and vulnerable individuals trapped by the nonsense of their self-imposed destinies. Can they ever escape from the futile missions they have freely chosen for themselves or are they condemned to persist for ever? Is reaching for the impossible, or just striving, what really matters? According to the artist, the search for meaning might be the real meaning and the pursuit of the realm of the dreamer the main goal.

Cat Roissetter‘s art vocabulary is nourished by the resonances of the Surrealism tradition, an art movement that overused the idea of absurdity by deep exploration into the realms of the human unconsciousness. Everything in Cat’s imagery -landscapes, characters and locations- possesses a dream-like quality that originates somewhere afar from our conscious brains, perhaps in her own dreams and memories. In her highly intense surreal mix of fact and fantasy worlds, children are the real protagonists. Groups of kids engaged in weird games that involve aggression, explosions or levitation exercises. Through cruelty, sadism and brutality in childhood, Roissetter might be challenging the conventional belief that children symbolise the purity and the innocence of the human condition. She openly portrays the evil and the beastliness as characteristics of the human nature that originate in the early years and accompany us throughout all our existence. Very often our conscious brains will repress certain experiences, as a defence mechanism. It is through dreaming, along with other therapies like psychoanalysis, hypnotism or art, that we are able to bring it all into awareness and to consciously deal with it.

It is difficult to turn a blind eye to the parallels between Mark Rathmell‘s paintings and those produced by the figurative expressionist artists of the 60’s, mainly by the German painter Phillip Gaston. Rathmell’s black and white series of paintings: Binge Machine are technically defined by simple, energetic and rough brushes that reflect on episodes of his own biography: his continuing struggle with alcoholism, and his obsessive inclination to art production as a therapeutical pattern to deal with addictions, compulsions and anxieties. Mental disorders of any kind are the main illnesses of our modern societies, easily becoming chronic as it seems that negative emotions are always stronger than positive ones. This reality brings on the eternal “nature versus nurture” debate: is the contemporary Mental Disorder phenomenon a new form of determinism? Are we in charge of our own actions or are they the direct consequence of a certain chemical brain state? If the latter is true, the whole idea of “free will” collapses and we cannot take responsibility for our behaviour. Is this the new big solution of the age of entitlement, fond of indulgers but unable to accept obligations and responssability?

David Shillinglaw‘s body of work is a homage to mass culture and his lexicon is a tribute to Pop Art, Street Art and Folk Art. His mixed media assemblages, made out of wood, metal boards, suitcases or chairs, appropriate everyday junk and found objects that the artist later fills up with hand-painting signs and labels of bright colours. The resultant products seem to demonstrate that today, everything, no matter how resistant to commercialisation, can be transformed by the idiom of commodity. Through violent juxtaposition the artist allows different realities to trade on each other, moving from one mode of representation to another. In David’s art low and high culture cohabit to constitute just a unity, plagued with references to the made-by-hand aesthetics of the folk art and graffiti as much as the high tech qualities of the advertising business. The philosophical, scientific and theological blends with the spiritual, magical and mythical in a homogenous mixture of everything operating at the same level to portrait our human landscape.

Mark Stringer‘s greyscale films bring to mind the early video art experiences and some documentaries made in the late 1960s y 1970s, when artists where among the first to explore the possibilities of the new medium. Like those pioneer artists, Stringer’s films seem to explore the modern colonisation of the flesh by the communication technology. Most Certainly and Absolutely is a 3 minutes and 31 seconds film where the artist, very cool and self-importantly, presents himself reading a passage from a intricate theoretical art book. His body’s silhouette hardly defined at the beginning, progressively becomes a close-up of his perfectly delineated face, thanks to the high calibre of his camera lens. This constant blurring and defining of his physical boundaries, while absurdly reading the fragments of the art book, comes across as a strategy, alternately liberating and alienating his persona. As a fine arts student at university, Mark was especially concerned with the highly specialised bibliography he wished to understand in order to feel “cool” and being part of the elite of “cultural snobbism”. Just as much as money, “coolness” means status, a way to distinguish yourself from the crowd, just to finally reveal that it is pretty much part of the same. By making fun of the absurd cultural snob archetype, Stringer’s comic acting seems to be a rehearsal to exorcise old convictions from his past.

Success and prosperity, wealth, power and recognition, are the bombarding misleading slogans of our hedonic societies where it would seem there are no limits to desire, achievement and, eventually, happiness. However, triumph, celebrity and opulence alone will not make anyone, any country, happy. Possessions and power immediately increase greed for more possessions and greater expectations. Jazmin Velasco and her masked wrestlers appear to reflect on this fact. Her paintings adopt the jargon of popular Mexican art to portrait masked fighters, once famed and acclaimed by the Mexican following audience given the huge reception of their sport. Although nowadays these mass media characters, something in-between living human beings and cartoons superheroes, have lost the supernatural powers insufflated by their mask, Velasco regains the shamanistic garment to remark on the resemblance between those superheroes and the modern males of today. Her paintings depict the absurdity of conventional man in everyday environments -home, street, work- wearing the wrestling mask. Like for the veteran fighters, the magic garment is something more that a mere costume, they are part of their own identities. This mask becomes part of the way these men live their lives, something to identify with and to fight for. It gives sense to their existences as much as protection to conceal their real feelings, to fit into the absurd male attributes that society pushes for: bravery, fearlessness, wealth, power and prestige.

Mark Woods‘ highly glamorous and “transgressive” objects are beautiful fetishes, reminiscent of sadomasochist sex toys, but their softness, delicacy and beauty surpass any remote functionality. While packed with feminist, masculine, sexual and even religious ideas, the attractiveness of their execution and the nobility of the materials immediately capture the viewers’ senses. Woods’ sculptures seem to echo to perfection the fraudulent simulation phenomena of a society increasingly obsessed with glamour and pornography -a super profitable industry ultimately responsible for the supply of new concepts, images and fantasies of our private sexual lives. It is certainly ironic, for a society always looking for new excitement and extreme pleasures, that the more we search for transgression the more we turn into play-acting.

Mónica Sánchez-Argilés (Hundred Years Gallery Curator Adviser)

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