The press release of Identity in Transit, MAST’s new exhibition at The Book Club promises a sensational “introduction to the murky world of Victorian crime.” MAST’s paintings and screen prints are inspired by Victorian photographs of prostitutes, burglars and other reprobates taken by the police after their arrest. From the sound of it I expected to meet face to face with malevolent ruffians, defiant street children and haughty prostitutes. But there was none of that.
The screen prints and paintings of Victorian rogues are there but the criminals’ faces document the predicament and suffering on the poor and the homeless in Victorian Britain. Identity in Transit presents these bizarre nineteenth-century based artworks alongside post-modernist self-portraits, illustrative sketches and colourful paintings inspired by the Arab Spring.
This eclectic display results from the fact that Identity in Transit is the first major exhibition of MAST’s artworks. This most versatile of visual mischief-makers studied Graphic Design in Augsburg and Fine Art at Camberwell College of Arts, before opening an experimental screen print studio in Munich. Portraiture is MAST’s primary medium: “faces can be found anywhere; they are a form of visual communication and a means to identify and understand others.”
But what drew a contemporary German artist to take inspiration from faces of Victorian outlaws and not nineteenth-century German criminals’? When I threw this question at him, the chilled and beardy MAST gave a suspicious look as if I was asking him to swear allegiance to the Queen. As it happens, MAST’s motive for selecting archival photographs of Victorian delinquents is not chauvinistic but rather aesthetic: “Victorian Britain as a certain charm. The style and imagery of that period was completely different in Germany. I also wanted to have a special link to the UK as every time I come to East London, I see men with moustaches trying to emulate their Victorian counterparts.” So it’s not long live the Queen but long live hipsters then!
The human face is the most basic form of communication; we see human features in inanimate objects around us and attribute emotions to them. Identity in Transit creates a platform for showcasing anonymity: “I’m interested in the nobody; I like taking a picture of someone unknown and incorporating it into my work to give it exposure.” MAST is fascinated with the appearance of the homeless and the destitute. He aptly remarks: “the faces of people living on streets tell quite a story; it is as if their life was printed on their skin.” One his portraits of vagrants is particularly striking for its power of expression: a man stares at the viewer looking melancholy and haggard. His weariness is intensified by hurried strokes of grey and black paint.
Although his artworks celebrate pariahs, MAST insists his work “has no political value.” With his pieces inspired by Victorian scoundrels “it is more a question of preserving a heritage, the history of those anonymous tramps, prostitutes and thieves that populated Victorian cities.”
MAST’s screen print portraits are remarkable for their peculiarity: several photographs of criminals are overlaid thus forming a third face with blurred features. I find myself trying to decipher these visual palimpsests and to make out the original face but to no avail. The viewing experience is quite unsettling as most sitters stare straight into your eyes, which makes you feel like an unwelcome intruder. These hazy looking figures, not unlike Gherard Richter’s, are created by combining screen print and painting: “it is a game of construction and destruction; screen print allows manipulating an image again and again; it is an endless process of creation.”
MAST’s reproduction technique is comparable to Andy Warhol’s when creating the Monroe portraits. The artist takes an existing photograph and turns it into something new: “the copy becomes an original; it tells its own story. That’s what Identity in Transit is about; it shows how the medium can speak for itself.”
The painter conceives of self-portraits as a more engaging way than photography to preserve his emotions. He wittily observes “a self-portrait is the easiest thing to paint because the face is always available.” Self-portraits are MAST’s Proust’s madeleine; they are powerful conjurers of memories: “when I will look at these self-portraits in thirty years, I will remember the emotions I experience while painting them.”
Identity in Transit combines different visual languages that provide a compelling insight into MAST’s artistic vision. His creations are primarily pieces of storytelling but the narrative is not so much that of artworks than that of the viewer: “You create an artwork, put into the world and people give it hundreds of different interpretations.” I cannot help but think of Oscar Wilde’s “criticism is a mode of autobiography”. With its experimental artworks mixing traditional and modern techniques, Identity in Transit offers insightful and profound reflections on the way we see and interact with human faces.
Identity in Transit, until 05 May 2013
The Book Club
100-106 Leonard Street