Futures and Pasts
Michael Fullerton has somehow managed to miss the many traps laid for unwary young painters and sneak into the world of English Classicism. This is not easy territory for an artist living in 21st century Glasgow, especially for an artist with no love of the genteel privilege and patronage in whose service most of those pictures were made, but Fullerton makes it work.
There is a level of irony here, but it doesn't spring from kitsch appropriation or the self-conscious framing of a dead style. The irony is that the conditions that seem to put the 18th century English painting tradition so firmly in the past - a rigid class structure mixed up with unearned wealth and the power of property; privileged access to the means of representation; the gaping chasm between image and reality - apply just as well now as they did then. Fullerton also realizes that to make this connection vivid the paintings have to be convincing, and that he must deploy a level of craft, control and apparent sincerity sufficient to take them beyond pastiche.
Marcel Duchamp hated the smell of turpentine but blamed the persistence of painting on its addictive qualities. Fullerton isn't addicted to turps, at least not as far as I know, but he has an intimate relationship with his work that some other artists have with credit-card-only internet chatrooms. His painting, or triptych, of Lady (Hazel Josephine) Cosgrove, a bona fide aristocratic subject but also the first female Supreme Court judge in Scotland and still one of only three (incredibly, there are no women at all in the equivalent post in England), is entitled Lover (2002). This is not (so I'm told) because of any implied indiscretion on Her Ladyship's part, but because of Fullerton's intense emotional involvement with the work in progress.
This unashamed sexualization of the process of painting - another work is titled Spunk (2001) and consists of a glob of off-cream luminescent paint on a blank sheet of paper creased and stapled like a magazine spread - takes the Duchamp-derived criticism of academic painting on the chin, so to speak, turning vice into virtue. The artist, as the archetype of bourgeois freedom, has long been a connoisseur of spiritual malaise while bodyswerving the Marxian alienation that bedevils the average commodity-producing wage-slave. Lately though this seems to be changing as artists attune themselves to the art-fair circuit and a public sector geared towards the cultural industries, and Fullerton's reverse approach - total immersion, advancing into retreat - suddenly makes sense. The shenanigans of the avant-garde, from audience-baiting stand-up through communal love-ins and self-mutilation, once made the lifestyle of the lonely, garret-bound painter seem drab and unappealing, with party invitations unlikely. Now, in the sober, lap-top toting world of art in the new economy, the role of the outsider - not as tortured genius but committed maverick - is once again vacant and relevant.
Perhaps Fullerton's best-known work is a portrait, Paddy Joe Hill (2003). Wrongfully convicted of an IRA bombing in 1974 and not released until 1991, Hill now co-runs the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation and on the sale of his likeness a donation was made to help fund MOJO campaigns. The full-length portrait is unmistakably in the Gainsborough spirit but, unlike Gainsborough's subjects, Hill has no hazy classical vista behind him and stands in grey and brown murk. A little diffident but genial-looking, with his jacket over one arm, he has just a hint of something shared by Lou Reed on the back of Transformer (1972) or Auguste Rodin's controversial 1891 design for a monument to Honoré de Balzac.
Fullerton knows that Gainsborough was documenting a political class, and he is self-consciously reclaiming the same ground. He also talks about ideas of judgement, obvious enough in the two paintings mentioned. There are plenty of decisions to be reached in shaping an artwork before it goes out into the world but, in art as well as in court, the verdict that has the power to materially affect your life often rests with fallible institutions and vested interests.
There is another side to Fullerton's production, a body of work that runs from cast sculpture to photocopied dialogues, side-stepping any remaining suspicion of narrow formal revivalism and getting to places that the paintings alone could never reach. Trevor McDonald (2003), for example, is a dumb-but-worth-it gag, a screenprint of the straight-laced newsreader getting a spliff stuck in the mouth of his TV image; BBC Analogue (2001) is made from ferrous oxide, the raw material that records the signal on videotape, mixed here into a glossy swirl of grey urethane. The title refers to a 1977 Open University broadcast 'Gainsborough and Romanticism' alluding to possible information carried by the work which is somehow in there but irretrievable. A short text, lifted from R. D. Laing and pasted to the wall in a recent show at Transmission in Glasgow, uncovers a hidden agenda behind a casual conversation in an art gallery.
It's this level of self-awareness that allows the paintings to be read as more than simple symbolic references. At Transmission Fullerton also exhibited three compositionally-identical paintings of the same mini-scene, a small dog snarling in defence of a bone, from rough sketch to finished oil, in case anyone missed the idea that, even painting from life, the artist is both in control and ultimately responsible.
Fullerton's other paintings must be approached with these ideas in mind. For example, U.S. anti-abortionist Republican Senator Wayne Allard is depicted in a straight-up, tonally flat head-and-shoulders portrait, about which Fullerton comments - with a deliberate allusion to art-making - that he wanted to paint Allard because he's interested in the point at which a collection of genetic information, or an idea, becomes viable life. Steve Jobs, ex-hippy co-founder of Apple Computers, is depicted as Christ-like - possibly suffering on behalf of Windows users everywhere, or ridiculed for his own hubris. Siouxsie Sioux, for her sins, gets done in what looks like crayon.
Although Fullerton's work is well in synch with the current wave of new figurative painting, his conceptual means and ethical ambition are a rare combination. This kind of oil painting can wind up as part of a self-deconstructing game with the history of art, or be seen as a stealthy Trojan-horse strategy designed to smuggle the artist into the marketplace. In Fullerton's case it's neither - it's a clear statement of intent, aimed outwards.
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