Ged Quinn

Spike Island

Ged Quinn’s show at Tate St. Ives last year was called “Utopia Dystopia.” This one was “The Heavenly Machine,” a tag that likewise carries the infernal and the divine in equal measure. Quinn’s work contributes, along with that of artists like J. P. Munro and Nigel Cooke, to the current reimagining of history painting’s contemporary viability. He shares a sense of perplexity with Munro, though his paint handling and figuration are much more precise; and his disturbing mixture of visual elements and references is akin to Cooke’s compositional range, though Quinn’s are more overtly humorous.

The action in Quinn’s canvases may be puzzling, quixotic, or just plain bizarre. In Asleep by the Light of Glow Worms, 2005, for example, Joseph Beuys sits with his hare in the time machine from the 1960 film of H. G. Wells’s novel, attended by angels from a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Such scenarios, however, always occur within a setting that feels overwhelmingly familiar. This is usually because it has been borrowed from one or more pictures by the likes of Friedrich, Claude Lorrain, or Frederic Church. Which is to say that the depicted space is as much the history of painting’s representation of ideas, belief systems, and cultural attitudes as it is a simple site of action. Jonestown Radio, 2004–2005, uses the fuzzy atmospheric density of a Claude vista, placing at its center an ivy-entwined pergola that more or less houses an arrangement of tables. The clutter of things on their surfaces could be a scene from the studio, but battery radios, plastic water jugs, and an assortment of other things remind us of the orgy of suicide at the Guyanan hideaway of the Peoples Temple in 1978. A wooden sun lounger sits, throne-like, on the lower table, and, framed as it is by the pergola, looks like the home of Francis Bacon’s screaming pope. It’s a pastoral tableau whose elegiac mood is sharpened by these more immediate references to death, anguish, manipulation, delusion, and misdirected action.

Quinn everywhere worries at power, in both its political and economic aspects, with no suggestion that it will ever reveal a benign face. The squat, multiarched ruin in Harmony Is in the Proportion of Branches, 2005, houses five TV sets showing scenes from Pasolini’s Salò (1970). Their sound track (as revealed by the subtitles shown in Quinn’s images) comes from Ezra Pound’s Canto XIX, the one in which the poet first discusses the cynicism that is the justification of the economics of war. The Ghost of a Mountain, 2005, shows a molehill-size pustule in the ground surrounded by twigs; through a radical shift in scale, it becomes a volcanic peak on which sits a Berchtesgaden smothered in graffiti. There’s a halo of cloud around its summit and an orbiting moon and sun that look for all the world like a firefly and a primitive sea creature dating from the Cambrian explosion. In the foreground of The Heavenly Machine, 2005, are two hemispherical containers rather like the bottom halves of old-style globes, referring to Kepler’s model of the universe. One is filled with clouds while the other, a nest of hemispheres rather like a Russian doll, barely contains a choppy sea. Through the clouds drives John F. Kennedy’s limousine, while on the sea floats the guillotine that has just taken Louis Capet’s head. Just as much as brutal folly, it seems, reason and progress come from—and are always accompanied by—death.

Michael Archer