Iain Hetherington conceives his paintings as a mode of addressing cultural hierarchies. His canvases are elusive portraits depicting not people, but the signifiers by which they are labelled by others. His recurring motifs of street gang ephemera, such as baseball caps and gold chains, speak of the hypocritical perception within art – as well as other fields – of society’s ‘disenfranchised’ elements. “Anti-elitist views can be the most elitist of all,” Hetherington says. “Social ‘inclusion’ often means telling people what they are capable or not capable of understanding.” In his Diversified Cultural Worker series, Hetherington presents thuggish apparel as empty costumes, ‘derogatory’ designations that might be worn by anyone – from yobs to museum curators – blurring the roles of common bullies and PC policy makers.
In Diversified Cultural Worker 8, Hetherington’s disembodied hat and necklace draw upon the cultural values associated with certain objects and fashions. In this way, Hetherington’s composition becomes both a portrait and still life, translating the life-style aspiration aspects of still life into props for character adaptation. Hetherington embeds these motifs within a dynamic field of garish colour that is simultaneously opulent and savage. Layers of intensified hues congregate in carnal textures reminiscent of baroque high drama, blurring notions of decadence, banality, and violence.
Hetherington describes his style of painting as, “a sort of realism that draws on the traditions of Courbet: making plays on awkward issues, laying them on the surface.” This sense of the gritty nature of social taboo becomes manifest in Hetherington’s use of paint. Composite Picture 1 sets overlapped images of baseball caps, adorned with the favoured logos of Glaswegian neds, into a brutal field of colour. The combination of recessive and thrusting hues creates an almost tangible sense of space in the canvas, setting the stage for Hetherington’s painterly action: as brush marks battle for ground in sooty scribbles, caked on gobs of sickly yellows, and smears of red like flesh hitting asphalt. Its surface holds an aggressive tension and apprehension that is simultaneously discomforting and beautiful. His canvases are sized according to human scale, as if the viewer is confronting an ‘other’.
Sir Francis Galton was Charles Darwin’s cousin; a polymath in his own right, his many research interests included developing systems for classifying people. He pioneered the use of questionnaires, surveys and the collection of statistics to define social groups. He was also the inventor of a practice called ‘composite photography’ which used the comparative analysis of peoples’ portraits to determine their character ‘type’. Through this system, he aspired to identify the common facial features of criminals. Hetherington’s Design For Monument To Sir Francis Galton poses a teenager’s baseball cap on top of a road works cone – a stolen object ever popular with vandals looking to deface public sculptures. The cone becomes both a readily identifiable ‘face’ of deviance, as well as signifying fool’s ‘hat’ for the classifiers of this defiance.