Terry Atkinson

Gimpel Fils

Since leaving the Art & Language group in 1975, Terry Atkinson has devoted himself to becoming a contemporary version of a 19th-century history painter—in his case, a painter of the history of the working classes. By the early ’80s he was relying on increasingly complex methods. His “Postcards from Trotsky,” 1982, involved impossible scenarios, combining material from a variety of periods and employing titles so long they seemed to subvert the images themselves. The "postcards,” which had maps to explain them, were executed in what Atkinson called a “botched” style—his own visual equivalent of a Brechtian alienation effect.

“Art from the Bunker” a selection of work from the last two years, contained small-scale drawings and paintings focusing on the fighting in Northern Ireland and the prospect of nuclear war. Critiques of the cultural forms through which war is presented, the works continue to waver between fact and fiction. In these intimate documents relating to his immediate family, Atkinson considers possible futures and wonders exactly how they are influenced by the past. His daughter stands in a field, crying in pain because her hands are stinging. His other child, blinded, trains their dog to guide her through “the missile fields of England.” The defenseless people, framed by an alien, apocalyptic context, are his family, blurred and robbed of expression in a painful meeting with what Atkinson calls “man-made reality.” In two paintings called The Stone-Touchers, 1985, his daughters are seen among graves in a military cemetery, alienated from the idea of war itself yet inevitably drawn into it as if it were part of a natural cycle.

Yet the greatest successes in “Art from the Bunker” are less deliberately designed. “The Irish Sketchbooks,” 1983, and “Studies for Art from the Bunker,” 1985, are swift crayon and pastel drawings—shorthand responses to individual episodes, real or imagined—which rely on symbolism for their impact. An entire repertoire of loaded images—flowers, eyes, heads, ghosts, helmets, anxious skies, and, of course, bunkers—summarizes a beleaguered existence which, by virtue of its poetic coherence, hovers between present and future. One reason for the success of these small drawings, Atkinson’s best work since the “Postcards from Trotsky” series, may be that they avoid the problem of his distaste for the seductive qualities of paint. Too often his “botching,” an attempt at deliberate ineptitude, has seemed perfunctory or uncontrollable—a weapon that might explode in the artist’s own face. Another danger is exaggeration. For example, in his catalogue essay “Tales from the Bunker,” 1985, he extends the idea of a bunker mentality to cover the whole of the Western world, with the result that his point is obscured. In “The Irish Sketchbooks” the scale of the statement itself seems more carefully gauged. That Atkinson has found a new and more intimate means of refurbishing his history painting is good news. After all, time may be running out.

Stuart Morgan