by James Cahill
The entrance to the building in which Charlie Billingham has his studio is an archway crowned by a broken pediment. A piece of faux neoclassicism, it would seem more at home in a suburban shopping precinct than this backwater of industrial buildings in Bermondsey. As we walk through the interior courtyard, Billingham tells me that the structure was built in the 1950s as a Modernist industrial unit, and refaced in the 1980s in a spree of postmodern ornamentation. The surface theatricality of the building has become lacklustre since then. Its cladding and ornamentation now look decrepit and incongruous, ready to fall off.
It is just this kind of incongruity that Billingham’s own paintings and installations revel in – the awkwardness or perversity of grafting one historical style onto another. Often large in scale and pungent with colour, his paintings typically depict figures excised from satirical drawings by Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank and James Gillray – bulging, bewigged and cavorting. Reconstituted in paint, they seem to teeter on the brink of formlessness, as if ready to evaporate into clouds of colourful gas.
Billingham is currently planning a show in Los Angeles (at Moran Bondaroff) for which he has been looking at Rowlandson’s The Comforts of Bath (1798), a series of twelve etchings lampooning the social and medical fad that was Bath in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with its ‘healing’ springs and quacks. In a city of veganism, spas, youth-enhancing surgery and new religions, it may not be so outré a reference as it seems.
Even so, eighteenth-century caricature might appear a suspiciously quaint and populist source of inspiration. It is at odds with the fastidiously obscure interests of so many contemporary artists, as chronicled by Artforum magazine’s ‘Top Ten’ column. On Billingham’s shelves are prints by Cruikshank and Rowlandson. One is a hand-coloured edging of a wigged man pressing his lips to a cup of foaming ale. The caption beneath him reads, in obsolete spelling: “My Sarvice to You.”
But it is this very quality of antiquatedness, and of cliché, that Billingham has played with in the sequence of exhibitions he has presented since his degree show at the RA Schools in 2013, in locations including Berlin, Los Angeles and Miami. He tends to empty his historical sources of their narrative contents – including their accompanying subscripts – in order to isolate a face, pose or gesture. “I find it much more interesting to look for their general, universal qualities,” he explains, pointing out that we have become too used to seeing old satirical drawings as historical curios rather than as works of art. “They’re usually thought of as visual documents or design objects. Something which tells people about your taste – a jolly thing to have in the house, going up the stairs, rather than a thing people really look at.”
In Berlin last year, at Supportico Lopez, he exhibited a sequence of paintings in which huddles of men gaze in the same direction. They were drawn from a larger scene by Rowlandson, in which they are shown looking up the skirt of a woman onstage. In Billingham’s pictures, the object of the men’s admiration was left out; the original narrative had lost its focus. And so it was the act of looking, and looking lewdly, that became the subject of the works. “There is a narrative,” he admits, “but it’s a dishonest use of the original narrative, bastardizing it to my own ends.”
Billingham’s sources lose their familiarity and specificity through the action of cropping. Eighteenth-century drawings are subjected to a compositional trick of Modernism – the elided view of Degas or Monet. Salient details are removed from the original images, leaving us with a fragment of some larger and unglimpsed reality. In the achievement of pictorial detail, contextual detail is lost. We are left with pregnant colours and indeterminate attitudes. Who are these people, and what are they doing? Out of the burlesque of the cartoons comes a more ambiguous sense of eroticism or absurdity or beauty.
Billingham’s figures are no longer illustrations, or at least, no longer illustrations of particular scenarios or people. By focusing on a portion or fragment, he evacuates much of the original meaning while retaining the ribald or monstrous or vainglorious ‘look’: “I try to retain the attitude of the drawings, because they have such a particular gesture, to retain and even to emphasise that by focusing on the thing that appeals to me. I distil what it is that I like about the prints into something that’s more focused than the whole. A lot of the time, it’s formal and specific things that appeal, rather than the narrative or the big picture.” In one recent picture, he has cropped and flattened a particular male figure, seen from behind and above as he struggles to look up. The strangeness of the angle is matched by the straining of the man’s body. Without the context of the figures who originally surrounded him, he seems to deflate into baggy abstraction.
A new body of works consists of canvases hung on top of large tapestries which in turn are based on abstract watercolour paintings. The first in this group was shown last December, at Art Basel Miami Beach, an event whose louche abundance of pleasure-seeking, designer attire and cosmetic surgery would probably have delighted Rowlandson. Pictorial fragments – a pair of men sitting before bubbling wine glasses, for example – are painted on smallish canvases, set against the tapestries’ expanses of swimming colour. “The idea was to have these eighteenth-century characters looking into the space of painting, or into the space of abstract painting. I was thinking about abstract painting outside of history – imagining the men looking into these abstract painting spaces.”
In each painting-tapestry pairing, a figurative vignette is therefore adrift in a space of indeterminate, depthless abstraction. One work shows the same group of gazing men who featured in the Berlin exhibition. “They’re looking into the abyss, I suppose,” Billingham says. “Looking into a watery abstract field with wonder – even though in the original image, they’re looking with wonder up a woman’s skirt.”
In these new works, specific time (the moment of the men’s gazing) comes into collision with abstraction – the ‘timelessness’ of amorphous colour in the tapestries. And yet that opposition between the men and “abstract painting outside of history” is less clear-cut than it first seems. For one thing, the painting showing the two men with their wineglasses abstracts away from the original source; it translates Rowlandson’s imagery into the gestural, extemporary style of (say) Philip Guston, or the bilious colours of Sickert. At the same time, the ‘abstraction’ of the underlying tapestry, while in a sense universal, is itself rooted in time. As Clement Greenberg argued: “there is nothing in the nature of abstract art which compels it to be so. The imperative comes from history.”
In the scale of his wall hangings, Billingham invokes the avant-garde history of abstract painting, while also subverting it: “the scale is a heroic, Modernist scale, but it’s also a watercolour, which is delicate and intimate,” he suggests. The fact of the backdrop being a tapestry after a painting, woven on a Jacquard loom, further complicates this sense of a collision between periods and styles. The abstract watercolour, far from asserting its painterly medium, is refracted into a recherché form associated with craft and metier, and one that was for a long time more highly prized than painting because it was so costly. Yet even that old-fashioned form is ‘modern’ in an unexpected sense: the “Jacquard loom is the precursor to digital technology,” Billingham tells me. “The old original looms were technically digital because they used punch-cards according to a binary code. It was a computer of the eighteenth century.”
In these works, then, time is distilled into a sequence of shifting, overlapping layers. The categories or genres of art history (caricature, formalism, abstraction) are pulled apart. Billingham’s superimposition of a painting on a tapestry – seemingly an act of framing, or contextualization – is in fact the opposite: a teasing apart of context. Despite the cropped confines of many of his pictures, his focus is always a dilated one – and through that dilated focus, it is the act of looking itself (its multiple layers of sexual desire, erudition and memory) that so often becomes the dominant subject of his art.
He shows me a book of erotic drawings by Rowlandson, Amorous Illustrations, which itself reveals a peculiar – lesser known – aspect of the artist’s work. Titles such “The Happy Parson” announce scenes of uninhibited frolicking. “He made quite a lot of them late in his life,” Billingham tells me, “when he was no longer sexually active.” In the foreword to the book, art historian Gert Schiff recounts the difficulty of transporting reproductions of the drawings into Britain in 1977: “The customs man admitted his ignorance of art and had never previously heard of Rowlandson. To him it was just a collection of obscene paintings. His masters at Her Majesty’s Department of Customs and Excise were equally blind and deaf to our pleas that Rowlandson was an important British artist, perhaps the greatest of English draughtsmen.”
In one sense, Billingham invites viewers to see eighteenth-century drawings through the non- connoisseurial eyes of the customs officers. That is, spotting the art-historical source is less important than grasping the overtones or subtexts of that source. He admits that the heavily referential painting of the 1980s and 90s, à la Glenn Brown or Richard Patterson, has little appeal for him. Allusion, in his work, gives way to a freer mode of allusiveness. Looking at Billingham’s pictures, it occurs to me that British art is invariably ridiculed as derivative (the word is always deployed negatively), without any consideration of the meaning that might reside in the act of derivation.
It is significant, for one thing, that Billingham is so often translating drawings into paint. “I’ve always been interested in using the qualities of old drawings and prints to talk about painting,” he explains. “Even with the erotic images, there’s something about those kind of erotic images that play well with painting. There’s something quite sexy about painting, when you’re actually painting.” The baggy, puffed-up appearance of eighteenth-century characters becomes a way of articulating the slippery, lubricious materiality of paint; everything in his pictures seems ready to spill beyond its limits. “It’s a fun thing to play with,” he remarks, “this idea of where to allow the control in the painting. Being quite reckless, but then tightening things up just enough so they make sense.”