Derek Jarman, Eyes, 1986, oil and mixed media on canvas, 14 1/3 x 10 1/2 x 1 1/8".

Derek Jarman, Eyes, 1986, oil and mixed media on canvas, 14 1/3 x 10 1/2 x 1 1/8".

Derek Jarman

Wilkinson Gallery

Derek Jarman, Eyes, 1986, oil and mixed media on canvas, 14 1/3 x 10 1/2 x 1 1/8".

Derek Jarman’s best-known paintings are probably the “Evil Queen” series of 1993—the final group of angry, colorful, expressionistic works he made before his death the following year. Yet the “Black Paintings,” created between 1986 and 1993—some seventeen of which were neatly hung on the ground floor—offer a wider range of insights into his artistic practice. These small, squarish painted assemblages, made primarily with tar and black oil paint embedded with objects, have rarely been exhibited since his death. Their imagery includes wreaths, thorns, Christ, widows, smashed glass, teeth, superheroes and villains, bullets, and paintbrushes; also contained in them are the seeds of the protest-driven queer spirit that would lead to the “Evil Queens.” Their dark, poetic humor crossed with Catholic imagery, however, lends them a greater range of feeling.

For example, I.N.R.I., 1988, consists of a He-Man action figure (from the Masters of the Universe franchise) tied to and seemingly hugging a blackened plastic crucifix, while two figurines of the character’s nemesis, Skeletor, are stationed just below him wielding metal bars and rings. All three figures are attached to a grid-like field of rusty beer and soft-drink cans, creating a triangular formation, with a heart shape made of beads in one corner. In general, these works are simply composed, with icon-like centralized compositions radiating from the middle and laid out evenly on the canvases. In They’ve Done It In, 1987, the words WORK ETHIC are scratched on a smashed piece of glass under a headless figure on a pedestal, all centrally aligned on a painterly black field with seeds scattered around.

Although better known as a filmmaker than a painter—his iconic short Waiting for Waiting for Godot, 1983, was screened in the upper gallery—Jarman had originally trained in painting at art school. The “Black Paintings,” created primarily in his small London flat and at his cottage in Dungeness, Kent, UK, were inspired by things found during shopping trips for film props in London’s Camden Market and in flea markets around the world. Jarman added these objects (tacky white plastic prison rosaries, thermometers, crucifxes, condoms, and so on) to traditionally prepared canvases primed with red lead and then, in some cases, gilded them before adding thick quantities of black oil paint, and tar. When he used glass, he often smashed it with a little jewelry hammer after embedding it in the paint.

At first glance, the paintings’ austere appearance and their simple, regular installation here seemed to belie the emotional urgency of their times. Some began as protests against the harshness of Margaret Thatcher’s government, and more broadly against the conservative, homophobic atmosphere of the era. But after Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive in December 1986, painting also became a channel for his rage against his illness, the most obvious expression of this passion being the violent breaking of glass and the scratched words. These are not sophisticated paintings; rather, they serve as embodiments of emotion and sometimes as memento mori. Today they seem more mournful than angry, but also more playful than his later paintings. Although all of Jarman’s art (whether on celluloid or canvas) is highly personal, these little objects seem even more introspective than most of his oeuvre. One 1993 triptych has the words DEATH, SEX, and LOVE violently scrawled on it, one word per panel; the “Black Paintings,” with their condoms and dark Catholic humor, seem to more subtly embody the same existential message.

Sherman Sam