‘Into The Woods’
4 September – 18 October 2015
THE overwhelming feeling upon entering into the RHA’s Ashford Gallery, given over to Gary Coyle’s compact solo exhibition, is of crossing into the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. This is thanks to the show’s eponymous work which covers all four walls, a floor-to-ceiling ‘wallpaper’ featuring digitally-reproduced drawings of a dense Northern European forest of dark blue birch trees.
Tucked among the trees, there is a little cabin picked out in a lighter blue, a refuge from the dense woods, or a possible haven for the lost traveller. But the cabin, it transpires, is a representation of the isolated shack built by the USA’s notorious domestic terrorist, Theodore Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. Coyle is fascinated by American boogeymen, including serial killers, and allusions to these sinister characters appear again and again in his work.
This enveloping image of threatening woods provides a claustrophobic backdrop for Coyle’s series of skillfully drafted charcoal drawings, some with intricately rendered ersatz elaborate frames. The frames reference the artist’s interest in the significance of this convention in display and the ways in which it was adopted by Modernist artists and their supporters. For Coyle the addition of a formal ‘box’ around a work seems to adhere to French philosopher Louis Marin’s adage of the frame “autonomising the work in visible space”. We also learn in the supporting information that influential twentieth-century art dealer Paul Guillaume presented his Modernist artist’s works in the ornate gilded frames that his customers found easier to digest than their minimalist, avant-garde counterparts.
The works collectively allude to fashions in contemporary art, from the appropriation of images from the Internet to the ‘archival impulse’ that pervades much of contemporary art production. Together, they are not singularly autonomised by their framing (or lack of it) so much as defined by it. This is territory Coyle has visited before, where his explorations of the Gothic and its nameless horrors pulse beneath diverse narratives.
In Curtain, the subject matter is apparently banal. Plain theatre drapes are closed across a stage, eclipsed by the charcoal drawing of an ornate molded frame surrounding it. Dreaming Different Dreams II, where a clutch of bright-eyed fluffy cats gaze inscrutably from within another fancy mount, presents a mawkish picture familiar to today’s millions of Internet users, where adorable felines are standard fare.
The latter image is redolent of another fashion in art, the Victorian love of cutesy animal paintings from the likes of Horatio Henry Couldery or the only slightly less sentimental Edwin Landseer. Coyle’s wry take on this very twenty-first-century bit of pop culture is revealed as nothing new at all.
There are more playful art historical references such as the portrait Gregory, framed by white space and executed in the shape of an oval, recalling seventeenth or eighteenth-miniatures and the Romanticism of Gainsborough. The boy, a callow looking youth with limpid eyes, is the picture of nobility and its genetic manifestations: the features are slightly exaggerated, the face a little too long, the chin a little too weak.
Coyle is not always quite so mischievous. There’s a Turner-like haziness to The Death of Disco, where the artist sketches softly billowing clouds of smoke framed by another depiction of a gilt frame, finely rendered in charcoal and appearing as trompe l’oeil. But the scene recalls a real event that took place in Chicago in 1979, when local radio DJ Steve Dahl canvassed baseball fans to bring disco records to a match at the city’s Comisky Park in order to destroy them. After using explosives to blow up a pile of these records, the stunt went awry when the fans flooded the pitch and a riot ensued, possibly incited by the racist and homophobic subtext of Dahl’s campaign against disco music.
More darkness is explored in After Watteau, a portrait of a parka-clad Clown modelled after Watteau’s Pierrot (aka Gilles). Unlike the benign Gilles, Coyle’s clown is more akin to the figure in the immensely creepy outsider paintings by the late US serial killer John Wayne Gacy. A killer of young men, Gacy painted his clowns while in prison, gaining infamy and seeing his work sought after by collectors including cult filmmaker John Waters. After Watteau’s clown menaces from beneath a fur-trimmed hood and also wears a collar and tie, evoking a kind of thug-like figure both absurd and terrifying.
The exhibition reverberates with layers of ideas, subtle (and less subtle) jokes, and occasional insinuations of unmentionable horrors. Immersive and compelling, Coyle traverses the boundaries between digital and analogue visual culture, reframing perceptions of mass produced images and reproductions. Gratifyingly, the list of works and prices provided to potential buyers offers the perfect ambiguous assurance that “Prices listed include framing”.
Anne Mullee is an independent curator, art writer, filmmaker and researcher.