Sunday in the Park with Ed is a new exhibition curated by Cedric Christie & Pascal Rousson, at the Display Gallery in Holborn. Taking Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe as a starting point, the show asks artists to look at what is transgressive in their own practice, questioning whether the radicalism present in Manet’s work has been truly taken forward. The show features over 80 artists, with a focus on painting and European artists. The show also includes a picnic installation where a series of guests have been invited to host evening picnics. Artists include Ackroyd & Harvey, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Jacques Charlier, Simon Liddiment, Robert Montgomery, Martha Parsey, Barry Reigate, Danny Rolph, John Smith, Geraldine Swayne, Gavin Turk, Marijke Vasey & Ben Young.
According to curator Pascal Rousson “This is an artist show made by practising artists. When Manet exhibited Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, the state was pretty much the only art ‘commanditaire’ (patron) and dictating public taste was a form of aesthetic dictatorship. Manet was to turn things upside down, all would soon drasti- cally change with Impressionism when artists began exhibiting independently from the state. So our idea was to have a ‘salon des indépendants’, as it used to be called, just between artists, to open a discussion through the works and artist talks to ask if something remotely close to the avant garde still existed. It was obvious for us to choose Le Déjeuner as a start- ing point: it’s hard to understand how revolutionary and heretically scandalous it was when it now seems quite harmless. We’re attempting to ask each artist if they think it’s possible to still achieve something equivalent. If not, are we, as in the 1860s, back in an absolute aesthetic dictatorship? Co-curator Cedric Christie adds: “It’s that thing that Zola talked about when he was describing contemporary taste: “They can’t stand strong truths. There is no one to guide the crowd, and what can they do in the great hubbub of contemporary opinions? Art is fragmented … Each artist has drawn the crowd to himself, flattered it, given it the playthings it loves, gilded and decorated with pink ribbons. Art here has thus become a vast boutique of sweets, with candies for all tastes”. A ‘vast boutique of sweets’ – I love that. It seemed so familiar, what has changed? We wanted to put it to the test.”
For the figurative painters with a direct relationship to Manet, the question is perhaps more straight- forward. Geraldine Swayne explains “I paint ordinary people and sometimes even marginal ones, but this isn’t radical in the hard-left sense of Zola’s journalism or Manet’s experiments but it’s a bit radical in its fundamentalism, i.e. nudging sludge around till it looks like something else. As to transgression or violation of moral boundaries, I don’t care if I do, and don’t think relativism should creep into artists’ choices. Aniconism alone is enough to have had artists be put to death recently, so I will continue to exercise my right, as Manet did, to paint us as we are: laughing, frowning, fucking, praying etc, for as long as I want”. For Mark Jones it’s personal: “I still find Manet’s painting radical. If you compare it to the Salon painting of the time it’s mind blowing. Really his work is a natural develop- ment from Velasquez or Titian. To transgress I have to overstep some notion of what is expected from a representa- tional painting now. My whole painting practice is based on Manet – his subjects are always in role-play and in some way self-conscious or separate from the life to the point of alienation. I don’t set out to be transgressive, just raw and direct”. Derek Mainella, the Canadian artist writes: “I always think of Manet as the last great painter (of representational things) and also the first modern one, with Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe standing as one of the greatest paintings of all time. It’s significance as a key avant-garde moment in art history is not to be denied, however there are also the more contemporary issues of its problematic gaze. My work for this show is co-incidentally subtitled ‘the modern gaze’, as it explores this not dissimilar relationship of modern painting to the society in which it is created. The gaze now shifted to and from phones and computer screens – a new digital reality, which, for better or worse, slowly draws our focus from human interaction and real problems”
That relationship with society, the role of the avant-garde, is something that preoccupies Ackroyd & Harvey, who recently withdrew Living Skin from a touring show after questioning and confronting political actions of the sponsor: “Today, funding cuts and austerity measures put corporate sponsorship and individual philanthropy under a spotlight, and throws into shadow often uncomfortable, uncertain, and unexpected issues confronted by the artist. The question is whether the avant-garde is indeed the ‘immediate and fastest way’ to sustained social and environmental reform or a malleable and effective tool for corporate branding and political sani- tization?” Ackroyd & Harvey will also be giving an exhibition talk on the history of this work.
As for artists dealing with abstraction, Simon Liddiment reckons that “the transgressive in art only exists in pock- ets – of ignorance and forgetfulness”; Danny Rolph quotes de Kooning: “When I’m falling, I am doing all right. And when I am slipping, I say, ‘Hey this is very interesting’. It is when I am standing upright that bothers me. I’m not doing so good. I’m stiff, you know … As a matter of fact, I’m really slipping most of the time into the glimpse. That is a wonderful sensation, I realize right now, to slip into this glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser”. For Ben Young, “the work I’m exhibiting transgresses the fundamentals of previous work by denying overt narrative – it’s not ‘about’ anything. Any narrative significance there might be resides solely in the choice of materials and build up of the painting’s surface. It takes as its subject my unkempt backyard in Italy – so is it a (square) land- scape painting or a non-representational abstraction that borrows its palette from the colours and tones of a snow-covered yard? There’s no clear answer. I almost prefer it to be taken as a three dimensional object that happens to be covered in paint.”
As well as Gavin Turk and Jake & Dinos Chapman, the show includes multi-disciplinary Belgian artist Jacques Charlier (b. 1939), whose project 100 sexes d’artistes was rejected by the Venice Biennale in 2009. Olivier Mosset (Swiss, b.1944), known for his monochrome works and influence on the Neo-Geo painters of the 80s and the avant garde filmmaker John Smith. Artists also include Robert Montgomery exhibiting one of his poetic billboard pieces, Barry Reigate maker of ‘pop porn’ works, and Martha Parsey and Marijke Vasey who are both showing paintings dealing with the question of the representation of the female image.
Rousson, who is Swiss French, concludes: “Mostly we selected fellow artists with whom we’ve done collaborative work, exhibited, or talked to during studio visits and exhibitions. They came from lots of creative backgrounds and seemed to be able to make an interesting comment about the topic of the avant garde today – its legacy seems a major concern, with large amounts of work dealing with art references, nostalgia, etc. Many appear to ask if we have reached a dead end? What can still be done? We don’t really know what we’re finally going to end up with in terms of questions or answers expressed by the works. During our install week, we’ll try to make sense of it all, a bit like experimenting in your studio. Let’s wait and see.”
Image: Ackroyd & Harvey – Living Skin 2014 – Courtesy of the artists © all rights reserved