Fading Light in the Picture Gallery

October 11, 2022

An essay written on the occasion of the exhibition Fading Light in the Picture Gallery by Christopher Page, at Dirimart, Istanbul, October 1 – 30 2022

Christopher Page’s paintings suspend themselves, and us, between times. The works in Fading Light in the Picture Gallery are informed by the flatness of modernism and minimalism on the one hand, and the depth of Renaissance perspective on the other, their visual affect flickering between the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries. In some, pure washes of colour are set in simple frames, which on closer inspection reveal themselves to be part of the paintings too: paintings of paintings, with both the apparent canvas and its institutional apparatus rendered in the same painstaking detail. Other works imitate similarly framed mirrors, or windows onto an infernal sky. The technique used to achieve these juxtapositions and confusions of place and perspective is the less easily historicised practice of trompe l’oeil, an effect to be found, as the painter notes, in the two thousand year old frescoes of Pompeii as well as the drop shadows of the latest desktop computer systems. We are confronted with an elaborate system of illusions, whose references, while clear in themselves, collapse when placed in dialogue with one another.

The clarity of modernism and the exactitude of Renaissance perspective were, in their time, claims to truth, and the effect of their entanglement could be breezily postmodern: reproducing and questioning both positions at once. But Page further complicates those claims by staging his works within another illusion: that of the Georgian picture-gallery, with its high ceilings, red walls, and mannered air of sophistication and authority. The ‘truth’ industrially produced by these two aesthetic movements was, and remains, supported by another mode of production: power, whether that of Popes, princes, art collectors, or institutions. It was in the Georgian age, it can be argued, that this meta-claim, not of truth but of the ability of power to define which truths mattered, was first formally established in the European tradition, through the creation and endowment of scientific and art institutions, universities, corporations, and colonies. Art history, the Enlightenment, capitalism and neoliberalism make the same meta-claim: the ability to order truths, to certificate and verify them, to reify them and build the structure of the world around them.

Page’s achievement here is to draw out from moments in history when these claims become tenuous – in this case, notably, Roman Hellenophilia and digital skeuomorphism – that one technique which denies and destroys all attempts at the act of framing itself: trompe l’oeil. For the Romans, it allowed them to glory in the arts of the Greeks while making themselves something new and strange – even modern – while for us, it provides a purchase on an illusory world of ones and zeroes whose operations and ramifications remain largely obscure to us, often to our detriment (the digital screen really is a canvas onto which hidden powers write their version of the truth). In the languorous application of a shadow falling across the grand narrative of history, both the aesthetic claim to internal truth production and the imperial meta-claim to external control of truth are revealed as illusions of their own.

The inclusion of a suite of mirrors among his flat canvases reveal too that Page is as concerned with the individual effects of such a shift in awareness as he is in its historical impact. As well as pointing towards the instability of institutional ways of knowing and making truths, these works challenge the viewer to turn this recognition inwards, and to examine the self which has participated in such constructions. What is at stake is as much the fantasy of the stable and incontestable individual as it is the myth of power and history. The construction of the modern self has always been based on visuality, on knowing the world through sight. There is a reason that optical illusions, paradoxes, and ink blots are part of the psychoanalytical toolkit: in their indeterminacy, they present the opportunity for us to see ourselves seeing, and thus thinking and desiring, to see ourselves as the complex, multi-faceted, and indeterminate beings that we are.

The question then becomes, what to do with this knowledge? What is revealed, beyond the indeterminacy of the image, between the layers of truth-aspiring fictions present atop one another on the canvas, reflecting back from the mirror, and extending out through the window? It is tempting to retreat into apophasis, into the wordless ability of art to conjure that which cannot be put into words, into the ‘cloud of unknowing’, which, the medieval mystic Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite wrote, intercedes between us and God, rendering any attempt to describe the pure light of reason futile and, ultimately, dangerous. This is all too easy a position to slip into when confronted by, for example, the capitalist-digital cloud of complexity which envelops us today, the existential horrors of environmental change perhaps represented by the wildfire-lit clouds beyond the windowframes, or indeed the impenetrable fug of our own unconscious. And it is not a shameful one: there is strength and honour in the ability to collapse the figure and the ground and remain standing, to hold in productive tension the walls of received paradoxes and find between them a breathing space. Nevertheless, I shall attempt another reading.

The space that is revealed by the delineation of Page’s layers, by the internal contradiction of their apparent flatness, by the paradox of meaning and history he presents, is the space of relationships. Critically, and at the risk of stating the apparently obvious, I want to assert that this is not an empty space, not a realm of illusion, sleight of hand, enchantment, or religious experience. Indeed, it is more real than that which we commonly take for reality. The truth of the world is not to be found in discrete objects, but in the interaction of subjects, in the push and pull they have upon one another, in what the quantum physicist and feminist theorist Karen Barad calls their intra-action. We are not beings, but becomings.

It is relationships between beings, bodies, and times, relationships in the ecological and the erotic sense, in which everything is hitched together and everything depends on everything else, which have been erased by academic history, the Enlightenment, and neoliberalism, in their insistence on the selfish gene, the selfish individual, and the selfish market. In their insistence on the one true truth, they have smashed such relationships, turning everything into flat, alienated objects of individuated gazes. And the result is what we see through the windows of the gallery: a world aflame. Those flames – not distant clouds, but fires licking at the very threshold of our collective reality – are the violent reassertion of the overbearing reality of the domain of relationships.

Repairing our relationships – with our own selves first, as whole and self-critical beings, then with one another, and finally with the earth, is the key to a new Entanglement, to replace the benighted Enlightenment, whose illumination, as the artist puts it, is certainly fading in the picture gallery. Relationships are how we live in the sticky, in-betweenness of the world, in multiple times and multiple truths at once, for there are an infinity of each, not more adrift, but more whole. The lights are going down in the picture gallery, and with them go the old certainties and the old visions; what new ones await in the darkness?

Comments are closed. Feel free to email if you have something to say, or leave a trackback from your own site.