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Phil Illingworth: Apocalypso

Platform A Gallery, Middlesbrough, 29 September – 3 November 2016

Review by Annie O’Donnell

Phil Illingworth defines his practice as experimental, through the repeated testing-out of hypotheses in the studio to produce new parameters of knowledge of the creative self. Given his lyrical practice-based research, this knowledge can be seen as an empirical journey through episodes and sequences, environments and time shifts, connecting to the wider world. Additionally, his work asks a specific question of the expanded/ collapsed/ exploded fields of painting and sculpture: “If art places itself in a self-referential canon, how can it remain fresh?”

In Apocalypso, his latest solo exhibition at Platform A Gallery, Illingworth approaches these themes with rigour and wit, playing with materials, perceptions and first thoughts to produce abstract ‘clever objects’ in the anthropological sense, to help us think about what painting can be. The exhibition’s portmanteau title gives an idea of the multi-layered concepts at work (apocalypse – to lift the veil; Calypso (nymph) – to cover or conceal). Indeed, each of the individual works’ titles disrupt our interpretation of them.

Apocalypso (2015) MDF, acrylic paint, varnish, 72cm x 50cm x 6cm

Illingworth’s engagement with, and mastery of, painting conventions is evident.  The artist distils materials that relate to painting, canvas, paint and wood, to the minimum needed to create maximum effect: “I choose my materials and processes very carefully; I hand stitch, for example, as an acknowledgement of and respect for the long tradition of the craft of painting. At the same time, I play games”. These games include the addition of unexpected materials such as fake fur, and the use of charred wood as a nod to charcoal in drawing. In this way, the artist can be seen to be inhabiting multiple roles, as defined by Walter Benjamin: the Detective, investigating minutiae while maintaining an overview; and the Child, building and manipulating his realm of new objects within a world full of objects.

In an exhibition which may at first sight appear be made up of sculpture, the artwork most explicitly linked to the traditional idea of ‘a painting’ is Caput Mortuum (2012), calico, gesso, pigment, paint, varnish, 137 x 205 cm.  From a distance, it resembles an old, cracked oilcloth, unfolded again after many years of usage and storage. Moving closer, the gridded cracks in its white surface reveal an underlying pigment, the colour of dried blood. These fissures will become more apparent over the lifetime of the work. Its ‘dead head’ title links us to the artist’s investigations into the history of paint itself – in this case the caput mortuum pigment, eventually rejected by artists after the revelation that it allegedly included ground-up mummies.

Caput Mortuum (2012) Calico, gesso, pigment, paint, varnish 2012 137cm x 205cm

Elsewhere the exploration of paint continues. In the new work, Strata (2016), blue acrylic sandwiched between circles of glass is still drying and changing. In the powerful Fallacy of the Beard (2016, 66 x 24 cm, antique wood, turmeric), a stripe of painted colour seems both familiar and unfamiliar, as does its wooden support. Is this totemic found object a prehistoric washboard or a mask without eyeholes? Its abstract form carries performative masquerade narratives. Can its stripe really be made from turmeric? Finding it unguessable, viewers smell it to investigate. It leads to thoughts of the use of natural materials in art history – oak apples and eggs.

Apocalypso includes a series of works that explore the qualities and received meanings of colour. Schism (2016, acrylic paint, limewood, hand-sewn canvas, linen thread, wadding, laminated plywood, varnish, approx 153 x 53 x 20cm), has the air of a comic trophy head, its long ‘ears’ like strange, archaic gym equipment. The combination of limewood and the bright colour of its crown/ antlers is reminiscent of the collections of 15th Century polychrome sculpture and reliefs in museums such as The Liebieghaus in Frankfurt.

Strata (2016) Slate, glass, acrylic paint. 50 cm x 40 cm x 150 cm

Colour is also vital to Carry Moonbeams Home In A Jar (2015, MDF, bamboo, enamel paints, varnish 10 x 10 x 37cm). The work’s bamboo spikes jut out at eye-level but their sharp tips are painted a non-threatening pink (see, for example, the use of Baker-Miller pink in the US prison system). This juxtaposition persuades the viewer that any danger to the body has been neutralised. Nearby, Différance (2014) is a work with multiple articulated ‘legs’ that echo its neighbour’s spikes. Its form is unified through a subtle, mottled colour applied overall. In this way it succeeds in combining a Modernist Caro-esque application of single colour to sculpture, with the blurred illusory conjunctions of Impressionist painting.

Carry Moonbeams Home In A Jar  (2015) MDF, bamboo, enamel paints, varnish. 10cm x 10cm x 37cm

Apocalypso (2015, MDF, acrylic paint, varnish, 72 x 50 x 6cm), the work that shares its name with the exhibition, embodies one of the clearest examples of Phil Illingworth’s virtuosity, and of the thinking that the objects in his practice enable. Its shape originated in a doodle (the artist often returns to stored sketches in order to closely access the vitality of early ideas). Apocalypso’s finish-fetish speaks of both the hand-crafted and the industrially-produced, of the art object and ‘the thing’. This paint surface attests to the meticulous approach the artist uses, in order to connect across time to paintings and objects made privileged by art historians. This reading of one thing through another provides a methodology rich in potential for Illingworth, and highlights the idea that art can be seen more as self-reflexive than self-referential. Perhaps the artist is in fact reminding us to constantly ask where and how the art canon can be loaded.

Différance (2014) MDF, wood, acrylic paint, varnish, acryl rod. 228cm x 100cm x 35cm