What’s on the Douglas Hyde Feb 2016
Serge Charchoune and Merlin James
Douglas Hyde, Dublin 2. Until February 25.
One of the best things about exhibitions at the Douglas Hyde is the care they take to choose complementary artists for their two gallery spaces. Recently, Chris Martin’s glitzy, glittery abstracts contrasted with Seanie Barron’s home-spun, hand-made wooden sticks, reflecting two very different approaches to art that somehow enhanced the other.
Their current artists share much more common ground. Serge Charchoune’s paintings fill the much larger Gallery 1. An obscure twentieth century modernist, his work was selected by Merlin James, the contemporary artist whose own work is displayed in teeny-tiny Gallery 2 downstairs. James is a great admirer of Charchoune, and has written much of the existent critical writing on him. Although Charchoune was almost universally overlooked during and after his time, James has organised this exhibition of his work along with others in Edinburgh, Chicago and Berlin – you can listen to a talk he gave on Charchoune in 2012 here. The depth of his fandom is underlined in the exhibition catalogue, where he imagines a ‘day in the life’ of the elusive painter. Born in Russia in 1888, Charcoune arrived in Paris in 1912, where he exhibited at the 1913 Salon des Indépendants and fell in with avant-garde circles, being associated at one time or another with big names like André Breton, Max Ernst, Tristan Tzara and Arthur Craven.
Charchoune has been described as “an unpredictable individualist who evaded or subverted classic Modernism”, interested in “music, synaesthesia, Rosicrucianism and Dada”. His work as displayed here certainly shows a singular approach to abstract and figurative painting which could easily be mistaken as contemporary. Inspiration from a wide range of styles and movements can be seen – Futurism in Laterne (c.1930-35), Cubism in Composition inspired by the Concerto for Violoncello by Vivalid (1958), while Gluck Flute (Paysage de Nazare) displays almost an Abstract Expressionist approach to colour. Charchoune also widely explored Symbolism and Purism throughout his life.
It’s hard to sum up this wide-ranging collection, although a number of motifs can be traced through his work – from spiralling lines and fractured brushstrokes to careful contrasts of thick and thin paint. The occasional figurative works display a rough, almost child-like approach to modelling and blending which gives them a surreal, dreamlike quality. This is enhanced by his choice of subdued, almost sludgy colours for many works – although this impression is immediately corrected by the electric, vibrant colour of others. Charchoune also frequently explored monochrome in various forms – one all-white painting and another all-black one somehow create landscapes through texture alone. Even some figurative works, like La Dolorosa de Murcia, are painted wholly in shades of grey. This painting was heavily influenced by Spanish religious art (its title means, roughly, ‘the virgin of sorrows), and Spanish Catholic influences are also reflected in the gothic touches and religious imagery sprinkled throughout the exhibition. Charchoune was fascinated by the religious art of Spain, which he visited during the 1950s – yet another example of how freely he mixed styles and influences.
This inconsistency might well be the reason why he was so overlooked. Unlike Picasso and others, Charchoune didn’t move through stylistic phases, but rather dipped into and out of formal variations and innovations. He’s been credited with using drip-painting, biomorphism, matrices, free-floating forms and other innovations far in advance of artists who later became known for one or another of them. Interestingly, he also used to cut up his larger paintings and display these smaller pieces – a disregard for conventional approaches to composition which anticipated later modernists. We can only hope that this exhibition goes some small way to addressing his low profile – on Googling him, this exhibition itself was within the first few results.
Two large works by Merlin James hang in Gallery 2. Although they use canvas as a base, they are not quite paintings – the artist calls this aspect of his practise “frame paintings”. They consist of thin transparent unprimed canvas stretched across the structural wooden frames and crossbars that are generally hidden in traditional painting. Little dabs of paint criss cross the surface, but the real focus is on the space created by the wooden framings. One features a miniature wooden house nestled on the cross-arm just behind the canvas, playing with scale, sculpture and representation. Art has a long history of this kind of foregrounding the surface to be painted on as an object in its own right – just look at Dutch masters of trompe l’oeil, or our own Patrick Graham. What’s interesting about James’ work is the question of “form versus dissolution” – or, how he uses the canvas as both a surface to paint on, and as a kind of thin veil between our world and the world of the objects behind it.
More miniature structures appear in the display boxes below the frame paintings. James has created houses, industrial buildings, churches and so on, all on a tiny scale. They are wonderfully crafted out of scraps of studio debris such as dried paint blobs, splintered wood, odds and ends of rubber, fabric and metal. Although the artist denies direct links between these and his paintings, it’s not hard to draw comparisons. They are both sophisticated and oddly childlike, with a dreamy air reminiscent of the building blocks of childhood, when an oddly shaped bit of wood could be anything with a touch of imagination. Here, James has captured and shaped these kind of fantasies in these whimsical, ephemeral structures.
Words and pictures: Clara Murray