One of the funniest things about living now is the speed at which we diagnose untreated, malignant yet inconspicuous diseases of our time; this review being one such diagnosis. These diagnoses are often wrong, but this doesn’t seem to discourage anyone from playing doctor. That painting is still alive and well over 50 years after it was first declared dead is one example, and further proof of painting’s liveliness is to be found in Christopher Page’s second solo show and his first at Hunter/Whitfield.
The pictures in Dawn are of two varieties. The first are square pieces, inspired by CAD/CAM software, which look like Constructionist reliefs in CD-ROM or Peter Halley colours; the second concentrate on capturing light effects on glass, whether falling on a pair of life-size screen doors with curtains floating diaphanously behind or what looks like a framed, wall-mounted skylight. The former are hard edged and border on geometric; the latter are almost Minimalist, and calming like Gerhard Richter’s Wolken (Fenster), 1970, apparently housed in an elegant darkwood bevelled frame.
Page’s paintings only really begin to work when you are in front of them. There are no reliefs, there is no frame, there isn’t even impasto. Each work is flat as can be, with every effect achieved by the artist’s subtle observation of how light interacts with hanging artwork and artificial things: down-lighting falling on a picture frame; an evening sun reflecting off the glass door of the pool house; or the shallow parts of a relief throwing a teenage moustache of shade on its deeper areas.
Page’s trompe l’oeil amounts to an insistence on seeing the artwork there, in the flesh, to appreciate the opposition between the ways they look and are. These pictures do not photograph well, or rather one aspect of them – the tricks or the connotations – photographs too well. This happen with photographs, actually it sometimes seems to be precisely what they are good at. Whether of artworks, or your childhood, or poverty, or lunch, photographs are very good at making you jump to conclusions. As a result, the look of Page’s screen-door paintings will set you off dreaming at the soft-focus light on the door of the pool house (no pool or house is visible) that anyone who has seen The O.C. will know means California. In person they still do, but there’s more to experience – an image is not enough. In this respect an apparent contradiction is drawn: in order to resist being reified or objectified, these pictures insist on their objecthood.
This is a bold move, because the tendency is to treat objects with suspicion or economic models, something to be traded or treated dispassionately – both Marxism and the Financial Times are in agreement on this point. To Marxists, “objects” are what Capitalism makes of humans; for the Financial Times mathematical models are made smoother by ignoring the wilder human passions. This state of affairs is deplored by the left and accepted by the right, but to all sides this seems to be the assumption about objects – they are either something that was human, is meant to be traded in the free market, or both.
This is a culture’s diagnosis, but is it true? Are objects capitalist shills? Perhaps, but this is a way of looking that begs the question. It assumes certain things about objects, then applies those assumptions monolithically, focusing only on the aspects of the work that are amenable to this viewpoint – i.e. what Page’s work looks like (as opposed to is). These are objects, but not how you think they are. And this ruffling of your intellectual feathers becomes an exhortation to examine everything – what these things are, how we see them, what thoughts we see through. It asks you to give each object the unique treatment it deserves; detaching each instance from a more abstract “system of thought”. “Painting is dead”, but these specific paintings are very much alive.
Because the wonderful thing about Page’s paintings is that they engage you. They have you enquiring, being calmed by them, walking towards them then stepping back. Before the show, Page took the measurements of each nook and dado rail in the gallery and made paintings with its space in mind. The result is that you can’t help but investigate them in and as part of that room. They are aware of their being objects, whose internal structure can trouble the room and world they occupy as something more than decoration or exposition. This is, in a way, the original point of modernism’s insistence on paintings as objects rather than representations – they act in the world in a way that older paintings do not, and that screen doors do not.
Objects can do more than just be sold, and Page’s baffle. It is totally unclear in his work where the boundaries lie between the picture’s subject, their artifice in depicting that subject, their artifice in depicting the apparatus of being an object (glass, frames, gallery lighting effects), and the effects of the gallery environment on them as an object (real light reflecting from real canvas). They don’t take a critical stance, they have you questioning instead, and questioning leads you to really see them. They kick away the intellectual scaffolding you are waiting to apply, and raise problems when trying to put it back up. Before you can think about Page’s work, the work demands you look at it, the same way you should look hard at the world it subtly occupies. In this way, Dawn obstructs any kind of automatism or complacency, and on first and last look that is immensely freeing.
Christopher Page: Dawn, until 27 June, Hunter/Whitfield, 31 Welbeck Street, London, W1G 8ET.
1. Aventine, 2015, 60 x 90 cm, Oil on canvas.