I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off whatever it is. 1
The title of John Carpenter’s 1982 film, ‘The Thing’, refers to its capricious antagonist, a parasitic extraterrestrial life-form that assimilates other organisms and in turn imitates them. The films bacchanalian scenes of mutative speculation, lassoed loops of intestinal spaghetti, and sinuous inverted heads with displaced eyes, find an unexpected echo in the baroque cornucopia of Neal Tait’s cast of painterly characters.
‘ANY LIGHT..’ is a retrospective of Tait’s paintings and drawings, although all but one of the works is from just the last 5 years. The exception, ‘…Granny’s Window…’, (1981), was painted some 27 years earlier, when the artist was about 16 years old. Given his works formal restlessness, it is a pleasing surprise to discover the origins of his rhythmic brushstrokes, mute umber infused colours, and capacity for scenic quietude in this early work. Nearly three decades later, Tait’s entropic phrasing has recalibrated Granny’s singular viewpoint into a fragmented, layered stage for his aestheticized fecundity. Where the street is the sea, and the sea is paint, each wave on Taits shore reconfigures the debris-laden sand, forming new coincidences.
These ‘Thing-like’ qualities of assimilation and mutating imitation, are reflected in some of his titles; the words ‘leprosy’ and ‘parasite’ crop up. ‘self, 2009 (reclining)’, finds an oversized head balanced on an inert, puppet like body, whose presence, ground into the weave of the canvas to the point of absence, leaves the lolling head detached, and strongly resembling those in Gericault’s paintings of decapitated prisoners. Just as Gericault’s painterly reverie engages the mythology of decapitation in art, with its headless nod to the rational /irrational, head/body-centric dichotomies at the heart of much painterly debate, so Tait’s work contemporizes these discussions, replacing the overt violence of Gericaults 17th century severances, with the psychological violence of the image-overloaded psyche of today.
In this respect, the paintings feel like a kind of painterly Chinese-whispers, where forms gradually lose their original ambition as neighbour deliberately slurs into neighbour’s ear. A doodling quality gives his figuration the distinct sense of having emerged from, rather than breaking down into abstraction. If there is a parasite or contagion at large, it is paint.
As Tait draws out forms from across the layers, you feel that the reference points are being drawn out of the suggestiveness of the paint, and that the material is functioning as an agent and metaphor for the assimilation of imagery by Tait. This chancy, willful orchestration of form gives the works’ porous characters the feel of those in a fairy-tale illustration. The glancing, broken lines remind of William Nicholson’s drawings for ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’. The quality of line is central to Tait’s approach and appeal. Black, dense and chalky like Leger at times, seamlessly quilled and flowing in others, his lines crest his broader brushes search for potential sentience, and bring refinement out of transition.
The leaner, stylized quality also recalls the figurative painters that emerged from Glasgow in the early 90’s. But where Campbell’s and Wiszniewksi’s narratives had a full-on poetic tilt, Tait’s tales never settle into an overt hierachy. Empty areas draw us back to the starting point and maintain the flux. You can endure and get purposefully lost in the shadowy mazes of potential tales between the characters, as tumours whisper, spaghetti curdles, leaves crytalise, and borders are crossed.
Like the tendrils of paint / strangled veins in the limbs of ‘The Dying Seneca’, by Rubens, intimations of violence quickly give way in Tait’s work to material and psychological dramas. In that painting, the philosopher’s open mouth seems to want to tell us something. Tait’s tapestries of veins and tendrils tell us….’keep looking’. These dense subtle paintings give us many reasons to do so, in shifts of gears beyond reproduction, born in the close proximity of the viewers exploring eye. They are both speculative and retrospective, generative yet obtuse, weird and pissed off.
1. From ‘The Thing’, 1982, Director John Carpenter. Universal Pictures.
ANY LIGHT PASSING THRU SETS FIRE TO MY EYES. A REETROSPECTIVE Neal Tait Peles Empire, London 02/2013 http://www.pelesempire.com/NealTait.html