The title of Aleph Contemporary’s online exhibition is taken from a work by the British artist Paul Newman. In 2012 he created a photographic print of his old studio, and during lockdown he has revisited it, painting eerie abstract elements on top of the pre-existing image. A bright and gaudy backdrop featuring psychedelic vases and clementines in crystal bowls has been shrouded in a murky veil twisting and turning with intestine-like tubes. If the original was, as Newman says, a fictional self-portrait, then this queasy update surely visualises him grappling with the strange and uncertain times in which we live.
Not all the art featured in The Last Day Revisited was made during the global health crisis, but every work is threaded with feelings we’ve now grown intimately familiar with. Phil King’s “Untitled (After The Raft of the Medusa)” (2018) reimagines Théodore Géricault’s 19th-century masterpiece in acrylic on cardboard, with kaleidoscopic bodies
heavily outlined in black grappling to stay afloat. The artist compares the sensation of helplessly watching the news unfold to that of being lost at sea. “There are slow swells and storms and peril,” he says. “Géricault’s painting is certainly terrifying and always relevant.”
King has another work in the exhibition, “The Lost Voyage” (2019), which shows three creamy arrows picking their way through a gloomy jumble of shapes and forms dashed with cobalt blue and leafy green. It looks quite unlike his previous work, and yet, the artist says the pair are in dialogue. “They seem to love each other despite everything,” he says. “They argue with each other. Sometimes their only connection is that they ignore each other.” Sounds like lots of families stuck at home together.
The getting-on-top-of-one-another feeling that many of us are experiencing shines through in Lee Johnson’s “Yoga Among the House Plants” (2019). Three angular figures, maybe four, are crammed onto the canvas as they practice their headstands and shoulder stands amid a mass of potted plants, their limbs entwined with leaves. In Rebecca Meanley’s abstract paintings, a similar sense of claustrophobia is conjured with rhythmic gestural brushstrokes that, like thread, loop and swirl and get tangled in a knot.
Dan Coombs’ “By a Canal” (2019) may portray several people, but each appears to occupy a distinct time and place. The artist painted the work from a collage comprised of figures whose bodies had become distorted when passed swiftly through a scanner. “I’m interested in the way we are connected and yet separate from each other,” says Coombs. “Human beings are part of the same matrix but at the same time in their own individual space.” Here, the result is a canalside gathering of independent folk walking, sitting, sleeping, all naked.
From the human body to bodily landscapes. In Tess Williams’ sculptural paintings, materiality is key. “Foundations II” (2019), inspired by a photograph the artist took of a dilapidated wall, is a multi-layered work made up of oil, acrylic, linen and canvas on a wood panel, while “Bellevue” (2019) explores the contrast between feminine (soft, fleshy pink) and masculine (the dark black in between). The American sculpture Willard Boepple is also interested in the way the world around us relates to the human body, taking as his inspiration functional manmade objects, then rejigging them.
It wasn’t a dilapidated wall but the very many crumbling sculptures he encountered while living in Rome that inspired Peter Griffin’s semi-figurative, semi-abstract works. Some had decayed to the point of being incomprehensible, while others were almost perfectly intact. “What I came to understand from spending hours looking at these objects was that no matter the degree of erosion or recognisability, all the forms contained a strong sense of the human presence,” he says. In “Guardian Angel” (2019) a silhouette of a man watches over a reclining figure of sorts, while “Bella Roma” (2019) presents a squiggle-like sculpture on a plinth.
Griffin unpicks in his art the notions of permanence and impermanence; the Portuguese artist Joana Galego believes a painting can become a portal. In “Come Soon” (2016) and “It’s Ok” (2016), both luminous and awash with blue, she revisits the feeling she experienced as a child in nature. Each work features a lone figure with only the
surrounding landscape for company, and evokes what Galego describes as a “feeling of smallness, insignificance, accompanied by the sheer excitement of having an infinite, great unknown to investigate”. It’s a sense of wonder that seeps away with age, as we absorb more and more information about the world around us, and yet, today more than ever, we’re confronted by the unknown. “Many of us have retreated, the streets are emptier, and the permanent buzzing of cities has lowered in volume,” says Galego, “and in these self-isolating efforts the longing for truly knowing, engaging and appreciating others grows.”