Sex, death and eternity: The Catlin Prize 2014

Yesterday I went to view the Catlin Prize Exhibition on its last day.

The exhibition kicked off with Dennis Reinmüller’s acute introspection booth. On a plinth a smiley-faced puppet figure – How are you doing? – was frozen in the instant of ecstatic revelation. The walls were bedroom-black, papered with psychedelic images of the artist’s face, like the Blowing In The Mind poster of Bob Dylan. Okay, bye a video screen merged the same image with ’80s-style  graphics inviting us into the The echo chamber of my life. I picked up a headset and listened to the artist reciting an existential litany: ‘My website had only four hits but I felt the eyes of the world upon me… Every creative act is the death of possibility… My Grandparents were already dead. I had to dig them up to remind myself of their existence.’

It was like stepping into the mind of someone on a dissociative tranquilliser.

The artist, like an experienced traveller, had left a lifeline for his visitors. In a corner there was a white rotary phone on a console with a number printed above.

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(c) Dennis Reinmüller/ Catlin Art Prize 2014

It felt like something out of Alice via Jefferson Airplane. Dial Me.

Reinmüller himself was on the other end. This must be a gallery-goer’s fantasy. To pick up a phone in an exhibition and speak to the artist themselves. Reinmüller confirmed that his work was about the way internet culture traps and perpetuates an idea of the self, endlessly reinforced and validated by the self, in a sort of spiritually paralysing solipsism. Everyone is their own propagandist, endlessly working on their story with themselves as their only critic. Reinmüller’s sculpture is a self-portrait, with his own hands but a stylised face like the self-styled face we show to the world via the internet. Afterwards I realised that this idea – crafting an idealised self with your own hands – describes the process of self-portraiture; and it can be argued that all art is self-portraiture. Has the internet made artists of us all? The buyer of the telephone piece – Hi there – will be able to call Reinmüller at any time for the rest of his life to discuss this, and anything else for that matter ‘while both of you hurtle towards the void.’ He is an excellent conversationalist, and £1,000 is cheap to have an artist-philosopher on 24 hr call.

Lara Morell’s exhibit in the next room was introspection of a different kind; it was like walking into a chapel. Two triptychs of martyred Saints shone out from the black walls,  San Bartolommeo, San Giacomo il Minore, San Giovanni, San Pietro, San Simone, Sant’Andrea. These were photographs of straw sculptures reproduced on polished wood. Christ stopped at Novoli is influenced by Morell’s year spent in Southern Italy. The materials – straw, weathered branches, berries, the long saw carried as an attribute by St James the Less – are timeless. The sculptures had the eerie vitality of corn-dollies, and looked back beyond Christianity to the hard, bloodspilling religions of prehistory. There have always been martyrs and sacrifices.

Catlin Prize Lara Morell

Devotion, a print on aluminium, showed a flower growing under a bell-jar in a field of bullrushes. I took this as an allusion to the nurturing power of love, or religion – or art. But I was struck by a pig’s head under another bell-jar in a photo on the opposite wall. That was death, I was sure. I did not know then that it would be echoed by a piece later in the exhibition, in a painting by Mr and Mrs Philip Cath. The Caths paintings and Morell’s photographs share a debt to Old Master painting, and they acknowledge this with the same respect and sincerity. One of the delights of a show like this is the way that the the work of different artists – wholly unrelated to each other – begins to speak with a single voice when it’s put together, and the exhibition develops its own expressive harmony.

Memento homo, quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris (Remember, Man, thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return) was a sculpture of twining branches and vine saplings on a table in the middle was called . The new growth amid the old, life reborn from death, was the note of ancient paganism again. It seemed to tap a core religiosity as old as Nature and this serene and timeless space was voted the visitors’ favourite.

Virgile Ittah’s Echoué au seuil de la raison (Knocked back on the threshold of Reason) was martyrdom of a different kind. Two female figures in wax – a double image of the same person? – seemed to have been raised up and dropped back onto metal-framed beds. They were still gazing up at the sky, but in the instant of death.

Catlin Prize wax figures

The setting was profoundly depressing – a concrete and plaster chamber with walls of dripping wax.  It was like photos of a hospital in a war-torn city, a carehome in a documentary, a brutal psychiatric ward. Places where people suffer and are forgotten. The instant of revelation here had been an illusion; bliss denied. An uncomfortable piece that spoke of too many modern Hells.

Sarah Fortais’s 1 2 3 (Unfinished) was curious. The room had a drum-kit mounted on a side-wall and a large coffin suspended from a ceiling, painted in an African pattern. In a niche there was Fortais’s project book for the exhibit. The sketches, photographs and receipts showed that there was more to be seen: a door to go through, and ear-defenders to wear. After several attempts to force my way in, one of the exhibition team showed me that it was a sliding door.

Catlin Prize 2014 2001

Inside I watched a video performance, where the same drummer and drum kit appeared magically in a circle around the coffin. The performance was intercut with images of circular shapes – a mushroom for example – and a cow’s eye being probed by a hypodermic needle and eventually sliced by a scalpel. The assault on the ear, and the eye were – I guessed – a sensory overload.  When I first saw the coffin in the exhibition room it reminded me of the black stone slab in 2001 A Space Odyssey. The coffin’s purpose wasn’t revealed in the video, so the 2001 feeling was intensified. In the film the sudden arrival of this inexplicable alien slab kick-starts the apes’ mental evolution, suddenly turning them into aggressive, territorial, tool-wielding proto-humans. So, while listening to the crescendo in the booth, I was really thinking, what’s the coffin all about? And just like one of the apes, this strange object overexercised my imagination. Instead of thinking – like a rational critic – that it represented the constant presence of death, I noticed a slit in the side edged with hoover-brushes. What would happen if I reached up and put my hand in? Would there be a trunk-beast inside like in Flash Gordon?

Jakob Rowlinson’s An Arrangement of Gestures (After Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos) was again steeped in ancient tradition. Ptolemy was a 2nd Century Astrologer, whose Tetrabiblos – the ‘four books’ – are one of the central texts of the art. He believed that ‘Most events of a general nature draw their influences from the enveloping heavens’ (Tetrabiblos I.1) and Rowlinson’s piece extends that principle to suggest that the expressions of the face can be plotted and predicted as an effect of planetary alignment. It’s an elaborate conceit. Rowlinson’s video chamber had a screen between two pseudo-astrological charts, showing how each phase of the moon was linked to a series of  expressions. He produced a film for each day, showing a subject’s face passing though the minutely shifting appearance ordained by the chart for that day. There was something of Peter Greenaway in it. Rowlinson’s execution was so beautiful and his approach was so much in Ptolemy’s spirit, that it seemed to be an addition to astrology rather than any suggestion of its absurdity. It was extraordinary that no one had ever thought of this at the time, that the face should have its phases, like the moon. Earlier painters – like Charles Le Brun with his Traité des Passions – had sought to codify the precise relationship between mood and expression; an eccentric painter of the time might well have included the astrological element.

The final chamber was a hall of painting, with large canvases by Mr and Mrs Philip Cath and Neil Raitt.

Mr and Mrs Philip Cath’s Eve’s Progress is a play on the Rake’s and Harlot’s progress paintings by William Hogarth, showing a modern woman succumbing to the perils and unequal pressures of modern life. High production values are the hallmark of the Caths’ work; the work is signposted by a brass plate, and each picture has a sonorous title dripping with irony. Each composition is a painting of balloon-figure tableaux that the Caths have meticulously crafted and posed. Lara Morell’s works were photographs of sculpture, and the Caths’ works are paintings of sculpture. One of the curious echoes in the exhibition. But where photography is a record, painting is alchemy; it brings the subject to life with an eery vitality, and at once you are ‘in,’ seeing the subjects as real people.

Catlin prize

In The Awakening Conscience (the title of a painting by William Holman Hunt, in which a man’s mistress suddenly decides to lead an honest life) our heroine is shown still in her mother’s womb. A rainbow balloon of hope floats overhead, but her father is characterised by severed pig’s head. This rather horrific element – it reminded me of Jodie the Demon-Pig in The Amityville Horror – suggests that all men are swine and things may not turn out so well for Eve after all. She is doomed even before she is born.

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The Girlhood of Mary Virgin is the only moment of hope, where Eve in suspension on her progress, under the aegis of the unicorn, the traditional emblem of purity. The balloon itself reminded me of Jeff Koons, while the painting’s mood had a flavour of Balthus. The creation of three-dimensionality and space is superb.

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But this is the calm before the storm – in One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin (the title of a feel-good story by O. Henry, which I must admit I hadn’t read and had to look up) Eve is shown being spit-roasted by two men against the boot of a car, her unicorn mask thrown down in the dirt. This scene is powerfully atmospheric – by now our belief in the reality of the world created by these balloon sculptures and scant props is complete. The shadowy trees that create the nighttime wood are one of the best, most assured pieces of painting in the exhibition. The Caths do not do landscape enough, and I could have looked at them for hours – ditto the superb still-life of the hatchback. To lighten the mood, perhaps – ‘Calm down, dear, it’s only a painting’ – or to remind us that the artists have not, necessarily, spent their nights in a lay bay off the A3 – the rear window of the car shows a reflection of the artists’ studio by day. The reflection of the balloon-man looming against the window is like a self-portrait of the space at work, and the simultaneous creation of the artists’ space and the space of the painting gives the work an unsettling double life. There is something of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in it.

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The last of the series Her Most High, Noble and Puissant Grace (title of a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite Calderon of an infant princess in procession – I had to look this one up too) shows Eve fallen from unicorn to bunny-girl, dead on the floor. Her head has been squashed by a saucepan, with washing up and unopened bills around her. A discarded Costa cup made me think of reduced this, low-fat that.

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As I viewed the painting I was thinking that this was a sort of metaphor of modern life – existence as a thousand cuts of mundanity. Death by housework. Now I realise that she must have been murdered, hit over the head by the saucepan, plates scattered, coffee spilt. It resolves in my mind as a gut-rending tragedy. A row about the bills. How horribly sad. Her murderer presumably another of the pig-headed creatures prefigured in the first painting. Shocking. Incredible to get this Sickert-like intensity into a painting of a balloon.

As I walked back through the exhibition on my way out, I overheard a guy discussing another death – the waxen unapotheosis of Echoué au seuil de la raison. He was saying that the artist made it as a mediation on the death of her grandmother, and the face was based on hers. ‘There’s a lot of Grandmother stuff in the show,’ he said. And I thought, yes, Reinmüller’s grandparents were a presence in his work, and my Grandmother was in my mind too at the time. She would have appreciated ‘Dial Me.’ I wondered what else.

Then the guy said, ‘Sex and Death, mate. That’s what sells.’

He said it cocky-casual, like someone pulling out a £50 note at the bar But I thought, yes, I’ll give you that. If life is a journey from one to the other, art makes sense of it for us. Every exhibit could be explained as a meditation on life and death, birth and rebirth. Only Neil Raitt’s painting – which won the Catlin Prize – stood apart from the cycle of life.

The paintings are meticulous repetitions of a single pattern. By the time I viewed on Saturday only two were left hanging in the gallery, against a wallpaper background as if to say, Don’t worry, these are meant to look like wallpaper.

The largest piece was the triptych Fade – and incidentally I’m delighted that a triple-panel picture still means Very Important Subject just as it did in Italy 800 years ago.

Catlin Prize 2014 Nail Raitt 2

Raitt reproduced these mountainous motifs across the entire picture, whilst the tone shifted through the spectrum. The time it must have taken, and the care involved, is mindbending. David Bailey the photographer was on the radio a few weeks ago. He said that at night he lies in bed looking up at the rough concrete ceiling of his bedroom, imagining whole worlds in its surface. Looking at Raitt’s painting you’re not sure whether it’s mountains, alien worlds or what a piece of surgical steel would look like magnified twenty thousand times. This makes them hypnotic, mesmerising pieces. Bailey said this is something photography couldn’t do; only painting.

Neil Raitt detail

At the time though they left me rather confused. Perhaps – as an Old Master-lover – I’m used to paintings being ‘about’ something. I admired the execution here – I was reminded that tapestry used to be valued far above painting because of the work that went into it – but I was less clear on what it’s ‘about.’ Perhaps it is about always being the same, unchanging. No sex and death here. Just eternity.

The second painting Island was a landscape painted like a repeat pattern. This was also mesmerising, more conventionally beautiful but dislocating. Real, and not real. Looking at it now I’m reminded of the first time I walked round the Millennium Dome at Greenwich. The path round the Dome is bounded by a high, landscaped wall. Stripes of ivy and little waterfalls appear on it at regular intervals, identically, and because the path is curved you can never see more than 50 – 75 yards ahead. As you walk round the path the wall looks exactly the same wherever you are, another stretch of ivy, another little waterfall, so after a while there’s the panicky sense you’re in a computer-generated landscape unrolling in a game.

Catlin Prize Neil Raitt 1

Here’s a detail of the woods and islands, neatly painted in exact repetition. It was oddly nostalgic. I felt like I was flying over Northern Canada, for ever. Did I really have a pair of pyjamas with this pattern in the early ’70s, or did it just make me imagine I had?

Catlin Prize Neil Rait island details

There was also a large styrofoam pine tree, with a hanging loop like a giant car air-freshener, leaning against a pillar. This pop-arty motif was a bit of a tease. Raitt knows he has created an art that is also a product, a brand. Desirable, recognisable, unchanging. Eternity sells better than sex and death. If Raitt is the next Damien Hirst I hope the brand doesn’t stifle the art.

And saying that I suddenly wonder about the exhibition as a whole – I’m a novice with contemporary art: perhaps all shows are this good? But a tingling sixth sense says this will be recognised as a definitive exhibition. These are the names to look out for.

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