Damien Meade makes paintings of busts, heads and limbs that have been modeled in clay, tape and wire. The fabrication of these sculpted subjects can appear cursory and improvised, but this crudeness of form is dignified by the trompe l´oeil of their painterly representation.
As paintings of sculptures they are ‘artifice within artifice’, but their phenomenology can move beyond this, to where the inanimate might appear reanimated, something uncanny. As genre, they hover between still life and portraiture; as subjects, between inert matter and sentient beings.
Text by John Chilver
London’s Ridley Road market is grubby, trash-strewn, restless and not very English. African grocers and Jewish bagel bakers rub along with the expanding tentacles of East End hipster sociability. Perched above it is the studio where Damien Meade has spent the last three years patiently composing a vision. A singular vision.
For a while, Meade’s paintings have promised a lot. But they have gained in intensity over the last two years. If you had to describe the works in shorthand to someone who hadn’t seen them you might say they’re like mannequin heads. That would be half right and all wrong. If you imagine surrealist mannequins (something like the ones in Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Hans Bellmer etc), then Meade’s images are at a remove. His paintings originate with models. Not “life models”. More like still-life models, or to use the French term that is especially evocative for Meade’s approach, nature morte – dead nature. Meade might begin with a mannequin bust, consisting of head and shoulders only. He will work on the head, adding tape and clay and fabric. His fingers will knead and gouge and mould the clay. At some point he will arrive at a sculptural image that is also a raw material fact. He will photograph the finished model over and over from a thousand angles until he finds one that holds his gaze. Then with the selected photograph as the mediating bridge between model and painting, he will start work on the canvas.
In a sense it would be “better not to see” the decaying head of Norman Bates’s long deceased mother in that penultimate scene of Psycho that takes place in the cellar of the Bates house. Likewise it is “better not to see” Meade’s working models. There is something alarmingly untransformed and inorganic about them, almost reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s phrase (later overworked by MarioPerniola’s book of the same title) “the sex appeal of the inorganic.” For me, Meade’s working models are disturbing because they remain unsublimated. The act of rendering them as images, through photography and then painting, is what permits sublimation. In a sense then it is the painting of them that allows the sculptural images to appear at all and the sculpted models themselves are therefore not quite visible yet, not quite images yet. Painting makes them into images. Painting is sublimation here.
Meade’s images operate in their own realm. It’s a complex hybrid realm. Within the painting’s densely distilled figures a strange fusion happens that connects the undead head of Mrs Bates to the plotted table-theatres of Giorgio Morandi’s studio. And then also to the fetishism of that other fundamental Hitchcock scene: the one from Vertigo in which Scotty, after coercing Judy to dress in imitation of the dead loved object, at last attains the joy of seeing her as the dead Madeleine when he notices that she is wearing Madeleine’s necklace, and “is” therefore Madeleine. So perhaps the equation “Judy = Madeleine” (which of course is also equivalent to “Judy ≠ Madeleine”) is a handy guide to Damien Meade’s deceptively hermetic painting project. After all, it’s obviously no accident that Meade’s eroticism of the inorganic is aligned along gendered lines. His “assisted” mannequin heads always end up elegant and unambiguously female, while his much more inchoate and lumpy potato-head figures are ambiguously male. Rather like Jean-Luc Godard’s remark that classical cinema was men looking at women, Meade’s work seems to declare that painting’s enduring inheritance is the male gaze that renders finite, raw stuff undead and infinitely alluring by figuring it as female and remote. Yet the strength of the work also lies in not proposing anything like a straight deconstruction of this gaze. There is no easy critical or moral distance to be found here. Things are much more entangled than that.
Meade’s approach to painting is malleable and open enough to generate a surprising range of outcomes. Through the conceit of the sculptural source he is able to pitch his images delicately between genres. Sometimes the objects look like severed limbs or jawbones yet to shed their flesh, recast as weapons. Sometimes the featureless chromatic grey space of the backgrounds enables ambiguities of scale: a blob of clay here could be the size of a fist or as big as a Stonehenge monolith. This kind of scalar uncertainty has to do with scrutinizing an object outside its spatial setting. Alberto Giacometti spoke of a comparable experience of visual miniaturization whenever he scrutinized a figure in space and imagined it removed from its setting. Meade’s objects are always figural. They are never just objects, materials or stuff, but always objects becoming figures, becoming personas. They are never quite identical to themselves. These objects/figures have no setting. But they are acted upon by light, affected by gravity and the bruises of their coming into being. We recognise immediately how much their world shares with ours.
In his book Manet’s Modernism, or the Face of Painting in the 1860s Michael Fried shows how Manet was concerned not just with hybridizing painting genres, but with developing new formats in which multiple genres could be added up together. Manet favoured the déjeuner sur l’herbe format (derived from the older fête champêtre) because it allowed him to bring together landscape, figure composition, portrait, the nude and still-life in one image. Fried also notes that still-life has a kind of ontological advantage as a genre of painting. Just as a painting itself is an immobile, enduring thing in the world, so in the still-life it presents an image of immobile, enduring things. Hence for Fried, still-life painting as such has a built-in reflexivity that lends it a particular power. Bearing in mind these effects of genre (both single and blended), it’s worth considering Meade’s project as an attempt – against the odds – to hybridize the still-life with the portrait. That is a strange proposition. If still-life is the genre that mirrors the immobility of painting, then the portrait is the genre that relates structurally to its “facingness”: to a painting’s having a front and a back. Meade’s work doesn’t just place the two genres alongside one another: it attempts a genuine synthesis. By embedding his “portraits” in the conventions of still-life, Meade invokes the primordial passivity of our own materiality – of our relation to our bodies, our minds, our neurons, our desire, our bruises, as material stuff. This synthesis of pictorial genres is ambitious and difficult. It doesn’t come easily. It requires tact. It often demands a particular sacrifice in which the face itself is withheld. Hence the paintings often show a head from behind, or viewed obliquely, almost never returning our gaze. To enact the portrait within the trappings of the still-life is to mark it as a special scene of loss, a loss that seems both to shape and precede us. Another evocative French phrase offers a clue and links Meade’s paintings back to the impossible equation of Judy and Madeleine: profil perdu.
Damien Meade (b.1969 in Ireland) lives and works in London. Selected recent exhibitions include Shape Shifters, ACME Gallery, Los Angeles (2013), Beastly Hall, Hall Place, London (2013), Unspecific Objects, Malgras|Naudet, Manchester and The Royal Standard, Liverpool (2013), Have You Seen Dante?, Vitrine Gallery, London (2012), About Face, ACME Gallery, Los Angeles (2012), The John Moores Painting Prize 2012, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (2012), The Future Can Wait, Victoria House, London (2012), The Smallest Composite Number, Standpoint Gallery, London (2012), Damien Meade, Charlie Dutton Gallery, London (2012), SV12 Members’ Show (selected by Jenni Lomax and Mike Nelson), Studio Voltaire, London(2012).The work of Damien Meade will be featured in Nature Morte: Contemporary Artists Reinvigorate the Still Lifeby Michael Petry, to be published by Thames & Hudson in October 2013.