Tuesday, 10 June 2008



With current shows at White Cube, London, and L&M Arts, NY, the Chapman brothers once more claim attention with their winning brand of ferocious sadism, furious mayhem and free ranging contempt. Yet it would be wrong to see their work driven solely by controversy or provocation. More precisely, their concerns lie firstly with limitations to sculpture or modelling; with the way mode of reference can render outrages unconvincing or comic rather than a failure of reference scheme; how literally the scale and scope of 3-D modelling, implicitly assigns a level of detachment or simplification. Secondly, throughout their work the relentless hostility is often directed to tradition and established norms, for example, in re-creating works by Goya using Plasticine or retail mannequins, in painting upon discarded 18th century portraits or satirical carvings of ‘primitive’ idols. All attack received categories for materials, source and sentiment. Yet where the protest is so loud, the agenda shifts closer to home. Accumulatively, the protests point to an underlying discomfort with identity or integrity, issues with special weight in a partnership. In this sense, the work attacks in order to allay threat at a more basic level. Righteous vigour here flags a private anxiety.

The Chapmans belong to the wave of British artists that emerged in the early 90s under the patronage of Charles Saatchi. But their approach finds scarce precedent or parallel in British art. Their use of toy or hobby figurines in early works is closer to the use of children’s dolls by Mike Kelley, in adopting standard figures or models to unlikely tasks (see also Post 20) as well as Charles Ray’s use of fabricated retail mannequins to perverse ends. Indeed, The Chapmans soon turn to similar mannequins but supply far freer modifications, although with a similar focus upon sexuality. Tony Matelli is another kindred spirit, but his development is slightly later.

The Chapmans’ figurines are initially used to re-create scenes from Goya’s etchings The Disasters of War (1993). The curious conjunction of children’s modelling medium and renowned record of Napoleonic atrocity immediately gives the work an uneasy ambivalence. Goya seems trivialised, toy figurines given impossible gravity, so that atrocities are either distanced or rendered child’s play, while models struggle for a verisimilitude atrocity simply cannot accommodate. The works are really at war with themselves; suggest a war in their making.

Subsequent work vastly extends the tableau. Hell (1999) – sadly lost in a fire in 2004 – contained over 30.000 figures and dwelt upon Nazi atrocities. Larger figures, based on retail mannequins also echo Goya, while others trade in bizarre sexual fictions (these also echoed in recent works by Paul McCarthy, an older, kindred spirit, possible influence). Such figures are often joined at the waist and elsewhere, defying easy reference beyond siblings and sexuality, while steadily advancing the claim for an identity of more than one body, a person of parts scattered or shared; partnership beyond the practical or permanent. The balance of these two themes goes to the heart of their work.

Given the impetus to transgress or surpass, it is perhaps inevitable that their work embraces installation, prints and painting as well as sculpture. Their series of reworked 18th century portraits predictably visits fantastic disfigurements upon subjects; renders them absurd fictions that tellingly deny any stylistic coherence, any historical identity. Portraits are a particularly sore point, here.

But their targets are not always or only art history. In Übermensch (1995) they ridicule the achievements of physicist Stephan Hawking, as the cult of the hero, the supremely gifted and dedicated individual, overcoming enormous adversity. The title links such veneration to fascism. Conversely, Hawking’s example stands as either an overwhelming threat to those committed to collective identities, or endorsement for the mechanically or artificially extended individual.

In the series The Chapman Family Collection works such as Unholy McTrinity (2002) and Grimace (2002) conflate ‘primitive’ idols with toys and Christianity, global marketing, consumerism and faith. These are amongst their more appealing works. Essentially they extend religious imagery, much as they have treated Goya or retail mannequins. But the test remains how true such works remain to their sources, how effectively they direct reference elsewhere.

In the current work, ‘Little Death Machines’, the violence has become more abstract or remote, the models less directly derived from past or present. In fact works now flourish a kind of ramshackle obscurity to their torture; a more confined or rarefied model. The works hint at the machinations of industry, but also allow a more relaxed, whimsical side. The reference now is more diffuse, the violence subtler, more insidious.

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