Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Still Life

Review: Patrick Caulfied, Tate Liverpool.

I’m looking at the interior of a 1970’s style faux-rustic bistro. It is almost completely deserted. A single figure, a bored waiter, leans dejectedly on a piece of furniture, contemplating the abyss of the afternoon. The entire space - with the exception of a kitsch Alpine scene hanging on the wall and some oddly luminous goldfish – is blue. A flat, featureless, slightly depressing shade of blue.

The desperate languor of this, or indeed any, empty restaurant is perfectly observed. So too is every object within it: the bulbous handle of the fondue pan, the generous swirl of the waiter’s sideburns, the curving chrome grid of the modernist chairs. It is somehow humorous too, as perfectly descriptive of a certain mood of dull ennui as those shots of a photocopier endlessly churning out paper that used to punctuate The Office. This is After Lunch, perhaps Patrick Caulfield’s best known painting.

Patrick Caulfield, who died last year, was one of Britain’s most celebrated painters. His work provides a link back to the post-war period when British artists began responding to the emerging consumer landscape around them. His paintings are, broadly speaking, Pop Art, with a certain, mostly superficial, resemblance to Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book style. They are characterised by the use of a kind of pseudo technical mannerism – the thick black outline – to depict interiors and objects with a mixture of both exactitude and lyricism. They have something of the look of an architect’s drawing or a technical diagram mixed with the colour sensibility of Tex Avery.

Caulfield’s work describes the everyday: pubs, Indian restaurants, offices, wallpaper, neon signs, beer glasses, clocks on the wall, cinema foyers: places and objects that are experienced normally in a ‘blur of habit’ and go unnoticed. Images like Morning, Noon, Evening and Night are so spare they could be utterly banal - like an Ikea assembly diagram or the dummest of architectural perspectives. But it’s an Ikea assembly diagram bathed in melancholic light or an architect’s drawing that has been subtly caricatured.

More recent pictures are less literal in their depiction of architectural space. A painting like Interior With A Picture for instance, is no longer based on a single, stable, perspective view. Various techniques - cubist and collage-ist – break up and fragment the traditional domestic interior. A painting on a wall (rendered in a super realist style), a bit of architectural moulding, a splash of light from an opened door, are all set within a dark painted field of shadow. The balustrade of a stair, more bulbous than real life, suggests some ubiquitous Victorian hallway. Crucially, Caulfield is not interested in making value judgements about the places and objects he depicts. They are simply part of the world we inhabit and therefore rich in associative but overlooked meaning. This kind of festishisation of the familiar and the everyday has of late become a popular part of design. Look at something like Habitat’s new Spindle lampstand and you can see Caulfield’s subtle exaggeration of the generic. Now that the playful evocation of kitsch and homely objects is acceptable (in design, if not in architecture), Caulfield’s technique suddenly seems rather prophetic.

Caulfield’s art has sometimes been dismissed as lightweight, chiefly I suspect because of its approachability. The depiction of familiar scenes and the use of an easily understood designer’s shorthand marks him out perhaps as not being ‘difficult’ enough. But this technique is used not just to depict objects in the way that a designer might, but to include emotional as well as technical content. And he subverts the authority of this mode by slipping into different styles, brief moments of painterly expressionism, perfectly coloured and detailed patterns and fragments of other paintings. By showing the world in subtly shifting and eliding codes (figurative, abstract, painterly, cartoon, technical) Caulfield shows us that nothing is ‘authentic’ and everything is in the eye of the beholder, even, and perhaps especially, the idea of unmediated experience. He also shows us that the most familiar objects and places can be made uncanny and remarkable all over again.

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