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René Daniels: Painting on Unknown Languages

NATHANIEL MEHR:  From the very earliest stages of their training, it is impressed upon aspiring art critics that it is triteness itself to identify, in the work of a given artist, the perceived embodiment of this or that zeitgeist, that essence which makes something, in that hackneyed phrase, ‘of its time’.  It is wise counsel, as a general rule; but sometimes you just can’t help it.  Nearly all of the paintings in this exhibition, a selection of Rene Daniels’ most important works from the 1980s, share a common characteristic:  they appear to have been produced in something of a hurry, with loose, carefree brushstrokes and a haphazard approach to texture and detail giving the works, in their total effect, something of an aspect of being unfinished, or at any rate unloved.  The striking, rude harshness of a multiplicity of curious green symbols resembling bow-ties set against a white background (Spring Blossom, 1987) is suggestive of a work conceived and produced in a fit of pique; whatever their precise origins, these pieces have a disposable feel about them, and it is unsurprising that they struck a chord during a decade in which colourful disposable garbage formed a staple, not only of mass culture but also, in the shape of the postmodernist theory then in the peak period of its ascendancy, the intellectual sphere.  

Whatever benefits might be derived in terms of authenticity, rushing one’s work doesn’t always pay off; anyone who has heard Crass’s 1978 album, The Feeding of the 5,000, will consider this point to have been irrefutably proved some time ago.  However genuine the intensity of the emotions, it is always at the level of technical detail that a work will stand or fall – Daniels’ achievement in creating a spectacle of throwaway art is precisely an achievement of technical skill.  In DoorLopend Naar Buiten (1987), the sparse three-dimensional interior familiar from the adjacent painting, The Return of the Performance, appears overlaid with what looks like a two-dimensional film, painted as it were over the original scene, punctuated at intervals with the trademark bow-tie shapes (also in 2-D), making a deliberate mockery of notions of perspective, toying with the very materiality of the canvas itself.  There is a similar play in Painting on the Bullfight (1986):  a regular blue interior and its red windows appear in correct, three-dimensional perspective; the windows invaded by flat – two-dimensional – squares of yellow light.  

Likewise the apparently free-standing, flat, rectangular blocks (they look like they could be shop fronts, perhaps, but who knows) of The Battle for the Twentieth Century (1984), set imposingly against an all-white background, provide an engaging visual spectacle, though one would be hard pressed to explain their function as representations or signifiers of any specific thing or idea.  Over two decades on, this total superficiality in the use of colours, studied in its simplicity and meticulous in its utter blankness, comprises the very mainstream of contemporary ideas about design and aesthetics, noticeably prevalent in branding and advertising in general, and also to some extent in high street fashion.  Quite across the board, and for some time now, the Eighties - and all its vapid garishness - has been back in fashion.

Camden Arts Centre 23 September 2010 - 28 November 2010

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