Gerard Hemsworth

Anthony Reynolds Gallery

The mind’s capacity to make meaningful connections from seemingly absurd juxtapositions is essential to humor and its potential to subvert language, and is intrinsic to the maneuvers that constitute both the internal and the external events of Gerard Hemsworth’s paintings. Although his images and inscriptions are handcrafted, they are cliched, reproducible signs, including those drips and marks that are often claimed to express an inner essence. In Madam I’m Adam, 1986, these signs of “expressionism” are combined with two identical images of a chimpanzee’s head. Here, through the title’s gender slippage and the allusions to creationist and Darwinian theories of origins and evolution, he provides a characteristically laconic comment on the conventional assumptions of artistic creativity.

In Hemsworth’s work the sign is not arbitrary, but understood as having a performative function within the social discourses that frame it, as well as having specific associations for the individual reader. His work suggests both the alienation of the subject within social codes and the possibility of its reconciliation through the dissociations of language, turning the canvas into a theater of illusions and contradictions. Through a graphic sleight-of-hand, abstract shapes cut from a newspaper become a menacing flotilla of warships, which in turn are transformed into a childlike paper boat or party hat (Ships that Pass in the Night, 1987).

Hemsworth’s preoccupation with the power relations underscoring popular social narratives is explored through the traditional nexus of artist/model/spectator. Know No Difference, 1987, presents the doubled and identical images of a dressmaker’s dummy and a paint “drip,” indicating that the image’s equivalence is not with “reality” but with the signs that constitute stylistic or fashionable codes. The familiar rhyme “Roses are red/violets are blue/sugar is sweet . . . ,” with its last phrase omitted, is inscribed across Death of Classicism, 1986, a contemplation of a female model shown three times, twice in the identical pose. The unsensuous bodies, painted in a gritty style with cadaverous hues, deny the viewer the voyeuristic pleasure traditional to this genre; used in this way, representation represents not life but death. As in other paintings, the figures rest on an undifferentiated grayish field partially obscured by a “screen” of rectangles, which distance the viewer even further from his attempt to possess the image.

In Nude Descending a Staircase, 1986, and The Emperor’s New Clothes, 1987, where the nudes are present only by association, Hemsworth’s concern with the way the image constructs subject positions becomes more explicit. Both paintings depict crowd scenes in frontal view and in proportions evocative of a cinema screen, mirroring and thus reversing our place as spectators. In the former image, the crowd consists exclusively of a raincoated male audience. Hemsworth’s reference to Marcel Duchamp’s painting is a reminder that the mechanized nude divests the viewer of specular pleasure. We must identify either with the crowd or with the object of its scrutiny; but in any case, in The Emperor’s New Clothes, it is the notion of the viewer’s omnipotent gaze that is stripped bare.

Jean Fisher