A genealogy of the contemporary sublime: Kelley to Tuymans
As of the early 1980s, many a campus beyond Paris was acquainting students with the concept of the sublime. Emerging from CalArts, the trans-media arts institute outside Los Angeles, Mike Kelley used the term as the title of a Longinus-citing performance in 1984. Transgressive performances, erudite texts, crude drawings, sculptural installations and post-punk amplified noise all came together in the work of this bricoleur-provocateur, with his focus on the truths that might be exposed via base materials, ranging from recycled soft toys to excrement. Kelley’s imaginative world turned around working-class life in his hometown of Detroit, and as such his sublime was very much an affair of the street, of youth culture. The limit point to articulate thought did not come from mountains and oceans. ‘For me,’ Kelley reflected in an interview,
psychedelia was sublime because in psychedelia, your worldview fell apart. That was a sublime revelation, that was my youth, and that was my notion of beauty. And that was a kind of cataclysmic sublime. It was very interiorized, it wasn’t about a metaphysical outside; it was about your own consciousness. That’s my starting point of the sublime.35
Kelley went on to suggest that such a sublime could be produced by ‘image clash, image resonance, things like that’.36
An instance would be his Silver Ball
1994 (fig.13), a big unshapely scrunch-up of cooking foil and chicken wire suspended above a gallery floor and attended by a sound system and baskets of plastic fruit. The UFO-esque anomaly is desperate to be ‘weird’, is desperate to be worshipped, is desperate, period; and in this has a kind of sad integrity. Such a bathetic endpoint of meaning locates the sublime once again in adolescence with its familiar terrains of science fiction, drug-taking and intensive, abrasive noise. Another artist emerging from the 1980s LA scene, Fred Tomaselli, offered a comparable interpretation: ‘In my life I have only ever been able to access the sublime chemically ... It’s a major subject in the history of art and it also happens to be the major component around drugs.’37
Tomaselli’s paintings, however – literally pill-studded variations on the final, ‘Beyond the Infinite’ sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey
– are defiantly, exultantly (and self-consciously) whimsical in their subscription to mind-alteration.
They offer a wilfully naive descant on a scene in which bathos and shamefulness had come to the fore. The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heyday of the grunge movement in rock and of its art world equivalent, the vogue for ‘the abject’. Exhibitions dealing in blood, shit or viscera would habitually reference the Paris-based theorist Julia Kristeva and her 1982 book Powers of Horror. Kristeva took her cue (as to a large extent did Kelley) from Freud and his notion of the unheimlich or uncanny: the object which disturbs because it brings an individual into contact with matters that he or she has repressed. The overall shape of such a pattern of repression, for Kristeva, was an individual’s ‘symbolic order’, the foundation of their own self-definition – the abject being whatever it excluded. Kristeva found feminist and indeed more general political implications in this formula, which readily fell in line with the notion of the sublime as a limit to the comprehensible. It equally spoke to would-be avantgardists who sensed that their tradition had arrived at a defensive, dejected, historical low ebb.
Between Lyotard’s visually unspecified call-to-disorder and Kristeva’s backhanded picturesque of the repellent, between mass society’s ever-latent groundswells of spiritual dissatisfaction and articulate artists such as Kelley and Tomaselli who were finding new ways to emblematise them, there was every reason why ‘the sublime’ should prove a very convenient curatorial hook for a growing number of exhibitions from the early 1990s onwards, the tag being archly extended in many an ingenious direction. For all the thinkers I have just named, whatever was sublime must inevitably offend against taste – against, that is, received ideas of aesthetic decorum and discursive etiquette. And yet such exhibitions spawned their own loosely defined taste zone, proposing what might be an appropriate sensibility, what type of image-stock to use.
The catalogue illustrations to The Sublime Void, a show held in Antwerp in 1993, return repeatedly to emptied vessels (for example Rachel Whiteread’s object casts, or the dangling coats of Juan Muñoz ) and to forlorn, anomalous vestiges (Robert Gober body parts, Thomas Schütte putty figurines). The window-picture that is veiled or blurry (as in the paintings of Gerhard Richter) and the blocked-off receding road (as in the photos of Willie Doherty) would be co-opted in other exhibitions for the same triste symbolism of spiritual disappointment – often associated, as I indicated above, with the theologians’ via negativa. Back in Barnett Newman’s day, the sublime had still bristled with hunky machismo: no longer. It was now reassigned to keep company with ‘the trace’, that wistful sigh of the intellect so cherished by poststructuralist theorists.
Still Life 2002
Oil on canvas
3470 x 5000 mm
Image courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London © Luc Tuymans, 2002
Still Life 2002
Image courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London © Luc Tuymans, 2002
The doyen of such dejection was the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, whose work gained an international profile during the 1990s. He described his canvases, which have usually been modest in scale, as outcomes of a trace-on-trace process – of analysing and redrawing a photographic image until it was ‘entirely dead’ and then recreating it in paint.38
The ostensible content of the image would itself often be modest – some fraction of a human figure, some corner of a room. The title (and accompanying exegesis) might then propose that this small tamped down trace derived from something ungovernably large and hideous – the Holocaust, the Belgian exploitation of the Congo or the events of 9/11, as in the case of Still Life
2002 (fig.14), an unusually large painting of a fruit bowl. An interpretive text for Still Life
issued by the Saatchi Gallery epitomises the tone of ‘the disappointed sublime’, as Simon Morley has termed this style in ‘artspeak’:
The sheer scale makes the contemplation of this painting almost impossible: a vast canvas representing an absolute nothingness. Luc Tuymans chose the subject of still life precisely because it was utterly unremarkable; a generic ‘brand’ of ‘object’ rendered to immense scale; it is banality expanded to the extreme. The simplicity of Luc Tuymans’s composition alludes to a pure and uninterrupted world order; the ephemeral light, with which the canvas seems to glow, places it as an epic masterpiece of metaphysical and spiritual contemplation. In response to unimaginable horror, Luc Tuymans offers the sublime. A gaping magnitude of impotency, which neither words nor paintings could ever express.39
Tuymans himself positions his values on another level:
I’m not so much interested in the spiritual aspects of culture – ‘beauty’ or poetic descriptions of beauty don’t seem real enough for me. Reality is actually far more important than any form of spirituality. Realism. It’s much more interesting to crawl from underneath to the so-called top.40
To this author, both statements seem deeply misleading. Tuymans’s paintings gained their reputation owing to the fact that they are, in a melancholic fashion, extremely beautiful. Like the Belgian Symbolists of an earlier era – Fernand Khnopff, Léon Spilliaert – he revels in the poetry of cold, November-afternoon pastel tones and seems incapable of delivering an inelegant brushmark, even on the rare occasions when he tries. A fine judgment about how far to diminish and distance his motifs has been crucial to Tuymans in his attempts to conjure a frisson of menace from such exquisiteness. It deserted him as he worked up his response to the loud public agenda of 9/11: the result is neither ‘extreme’ nor ‘epic’, merely vapid and inert. In this case the vogue for the sublime delivered not merely inflated verbiage, but pretentious art.