Merlin Carpenter


The moves deemed necessary to enjoy career success in the British art world are becoming increasingly restricted to badges of triumph within an overwhelmingly competitive system. Beck’s, the beer company that, as an ubiquitous sponsor, entered into a symbiotic relationship with British art some years ago, recently inaugurated the Beck’s Futures prize. Aimed at artists with growing reputations, it has provided a useful staging post between the up-and-comer status conferred by an appearance in the annual New Contemporaries exhibition and the reputation-confirming imprimatur of a Turner Prize nomination.

Those who manage not to be seduced by the system’s largely empty promise of riches often choose to leave the country as soon as they have graduated from art school, returning only after they have regained a little sanity and breadth of purpose. Merlin Carpenter was one such, taking himself off to Cologne at the beginning of the ’90s to work in Martin Kippenberger’s studio. Since then he has moved back and forth, periodically provoking the London art world with a variety of prods and gibes and always refusing to display the qualities that go down best in the city. Where sensible, ironic, and professional are called for, Carpenter prefers serious, critical, and committed. Also funny.

This time he took us back to art school, site of the earliest skirmishes in the battle for artistic recognition. Carpenter made his intentions clear from the outset, the first painting inside the door being a large version of the Beck’s logo (all works untitled, 2000). Dividing the rooms up with makeshift chipboard walls, he turned the gallery into a warren of spaces reminiscent of college art studios tarted up for the degree show. There was even a Letraset name tag on the wall, peeling away as they do in those situations because they’re only stuck on with double-sided tape. Somehow you just knew this was the very one Carpenter perversely saved from his own degree show all those years ago. All but one of the spaces were filled with paintings done on Lycra, the translucent material letting the stretcher ghost through from behind the surface. Ludicrously and preciously contemporary, these works nonetheless offered the consolation of a traditional debate between painting-as-object and painting-as-illusion. More or less abstract, the paintings were executed in a range of styles, allowing the viewer, should he or she so wish, to conjure up a list of references to the must-have influences of the day. Along with all these canvases, the central space was devoted to a series of obsessively nerdy cyberpunk drawings. Hosts of trucks, tanks, tractors, 4x4s, and other motorized vehicles, customized according to a kind of RoboCop-inflected trash aesthetic, moved through a sketchily suggested future world The reference Carpenter offered in the accompanying handout was “Neuromancer”—not the William Gibson novel but the Billy Idol song of the same name.

Everyone is excitedly telling us that painting is back. It’s the fashion thing: Wait long enough and it all comes round again. Carpenter’s paintings and drawings set up a wry counterpoint both to the persistent authority these disciplines enjoy, and to the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which they are being reinvigorated and earnestly discussed.

Michael Archer