In an undefined woodland a naked man and woman sit beside a stream amongst quotidian trash. This could almost describe the famous painting ‘Venus and Mars’, a fifteenth-century painting by Botticelli. But it does not. It describes ‘Ups the Downs: A Teenage Tragedy of Erotic Ineptitude’, by Stuart Pearson Wright, painted this year. In the hand of the artist, the man in this scene, who appears in self-portrait, is a condom. It, like the lance in the Botticelli, is the chief guide to the meaning of the scene. In the renaissance painting, the ‘stolen lance’ stood as a post-coital joke, in the more recent painting, it sits, limply and pathetically as a metaphor for, well, ‘Erotic Ineptitude’. But this prophylactic is no mere toilet-cubicle doodle. It is exquisitely produced. It glistens with minute highlights.
Wright’s excellence in the practice of painting allows him to swamp the viewer in such details. Happily, though, this aptitude for detail is tempered with artistic license. This license takes the form of a more extreme version of a stylistic device Wright has employed for years. His paintings, originally portraits (from which his career took off under the patronage of the National Portrait Gallery), would frequently stretch and elongate otherwise pin-sharp representations of his sitters. At ‘Halfboy’, Wright has amplified his approach, he has doubled down on geometric ambiguity in a way which is far more disturbing. This disturbing effect takes the form of an oblique perspective. The walls of internal rooms, of the exterior of council-estate buildings or of large mid-twentieth century trucks, are all tightly conformed to a rigid set of orthogonals from a vanishing point. But there is one crucial problem — exploited to full effect by Wright — with this approach. It means that wherever the viewer is standing, the projection of space always seems to come from the side of our vision. It is therefore entirely dissonant with our ordinary perception of space.
But why are these technical features relevant to an exhibition which, as all the accompanying literature suggests, is supposed to be intensely biographical, about the artist’s own life? Because, as any biography necessarily is, our opinion of our lives are deeply contingent upon speculation. We simply do not remember enough to make it any other way. So, I would suggest, the contradiction of the sharp material ‘things’ of the paintings and the impossible ‘spaces’ of their compositions stand for this lack. And what a successful ‘lack’ Wright has produced. For, unlike Surrealism- an unfortunate movement which only ever produced semantic gimmickry- spatial errors totally undermine the optical perfection of surfaces, and we feel in the presence of a properly indeterminate reality. Wright has spoken quite candidly in the past (in a TED talk available on Youtube) about his various ‘distancing’ methods, including the stretching of figures, so there is considerable certainty in the deliberateness of these ‘epistemic’ devices: they are there for a reason.
All of these sophisticated games with reality end, to an extent, in the second half of this exhibition. The works are situated closer to the present tense, in setting, but are in fact older and were made in the earlier 2010s. They represent a good selection of Wright’s self portraits, including ‘Iketshall’ of 2014, a self-portrait in the act of painting, which recalls many historical works, among them Vermeer’s ‘The Art of Painting’. Even for a self portrait, it is highly self conscious: it contains a blue sphere, presumably meant to be an exercise ball, but which we can only read as a testament to artistic skill in the production of perfect geometry, harking back to the gratuitous circles in Rembrandt’s very late ‘Kenwood House Self Portrait’. These self-portraits then descend into narrative scenes of a more general ‘mood’, chiefly Gothic, which evoke a personal tragedy alluded to in the exhibition literature. The conclusion to all this is a scattering of small works, many of them recent and produced for this exhibition like the initial series of narrative paintings, some of them older. The represent a series of relatively universal objects, plastic toys, a (particularly distorted) wedding portrait. It sits at the end of the show in a loose collection, like a scattered dossier of evidence. It seems to suggest that after all that remembering and reimagining, this collection is the only thing in fact left. But this is not the only interpretation. Visit the exhibition, be fascinated by Wright’s exceptional facture, and make up your own mind about his stories. These ambitious works exercise both our visual and our imaginative faculties.