Review: A Considered Response
A Considered Response
One of the consequences of this image-saturated world is that eight seconds is as long as you can expect anyone to look at a painting. Sam Leach’s entry into this years Archibald Prize is a case in point. In eight seconds you will see a self portrait of the artist in Nazi uniform, after which time you can spend as long as you like making shallow blustering condemnations about it being the Archibald history’s greatest monster and demanding explanations for this fresh horror. The media has done their usual shtick of giving “both” sides of the story (because in their simplified world there are only ever two points of view) and so far, the discussion has been about Nazis, the Holocaust, and publicity. I would like to take the time here to demonstrate how this painting could be considered as a work of art.
We approach this painting knowing it is a self-portrait. The figure, placed in the lower left corner is dwarfed by an impenetrable darkness. From the direct gaze of the subject we can deduce that it was painted using a mirror (a much more intimate process than working from a photograph). The look on his almost smirking face is one of mild disdain (and here it is crucial to remember that the artist is looking at himself). The dress is instantly recognisable as a Nazi uniform though only because of a partial view of a red armband (no swastika can be seen). The sombre gloom evokes the heavy seriousness of German Romanticism though the diminutive scale of the work literally belittles its subject matter. The painting has a slight awkwardness, the head looks as though it has been grafted onto another paintings body, and the figures right hand is left oddly unresolved. Instead of varnish, the painting is encased in a thick shell of highly reflective resin creating a mirror-like surface. When the viewer looks at this painting they simultaneously see a reflection of themselves (if quick enough you may even catch your expression as you react to the work).
This painting is deceptively complicated and like all good art it cannot be explained but rather, it has capacity to provoke an abundance of responses. I could write about the multiple selves we see when look into a mirror. I could discuss how as humans, we are the products of our cultural and genetic history; that evil acts are human acts and beneath our moral judgement we all have the capacity for evil. I could place this work in a context of art that has explored similar themes. The Picture of Dorian Gray; Oscar Wilde’s description of a portrait that revealed the ugly psyche of a man whose outward appearance gave no indication of his evil undertakings. I could compare this work with Anslem Kiefer’s early works that tried to reclaim a German aesthetic that had been tainted by Nazism (Kiefer also depicted himself in Nazi uniform). Or I could find parallels in Bruno Ganz’s intimate portrayal of Adolph Hitler in the recent film Downfall. Like Ganz, Leach has imagined himself as Hitler.
All art is part of a broader historical context and those who forget their art history are doomed to repeat the same facile castigations that have always greeted “difficult” artworks. The point I’m trying to make here is that there are so many ways to think about paintings like this if one is prepared to take it seriously and put a little thought into one’s response. To react with knee-jerk emotional rejections, either on grounds of conceptual collaboration or attention grabbing sensationalism is lazy and ignorant. Even Archibald prize entries can be worthy of serious consideration.