Keith Cunningham, Two Hanging Chickens, 1956, 35 7⁄8 × 27 3⁄8".

Keith Cunningham, Two Hanging Chickens, 1956, 35 7⁄8 × 27 3⁄8".

Keith Cunningham

Keith Cunningham’s paintings are exercises in inscrutability. In art as in life, the Australian-born artist was driven by private obsessions and a desire for obscurity. Stashed in a spare room until Cunningham’s death in 2014, the seventy-plus oils on canvas or board featured in “The Cloud of Witness” are dense with macabre moods and ever-lurking violence.

With a background in graphic design (Cunningham left school at fifteen to work in the advertising department of premier Sydney retailer David Jones), the artist fled the sunniness of his homeland for the bleak landscapes of postwar London. Gaining a place in 1952 at the Royal College of Art, where his contemporaries included Frank Auerbach (who remarked on Cunningham’s work as being “full of nervous life”), Cunningham combined an illustrator’s facility with a solitary, brooding imagination to produce his arresting and desolate visions.

In the portraits that opened the show, the sitters’ expressions are largely extinguished by shadow, leaving only the abandoned chaos of their faces, leveled to the bare proportions of skulls seen in neighboring paintings. (Elsewhere, Dark Sheep Skull, from 1957, could be a face screaming through the gloom: human and beast alike becoming frail mirrors in their mutual decay.) The powder-white face and reddish nose in Man in Shadow, 1953, suggest a leering clown; the features of Red Portrait of Frank Bowling, 1956–57, look almost to have been scorched away entirely.

Cunningham’s other preoccupation emerged in the light-drenched second gallery: animals, shown both alive and as carcasses. The frenzied pack depicted in Dogs, 1956, echoes the work of Francis Bacon with its feral energy and bloody scrawls; Two Hanging Chickens, 1956, portrays the dead fowl in viscera pinks and feathered-white brushstrokes. Upstairs, one found a more pathetic if no less unsettling mood struck by Dog, 1953, with its lifeless button-black eyes and frantic brushstrokes creating the effect of mangy mottled fur.

Though Cunningham was based in the British capital for most of his life, visits to the Continent inspired some of his most somber, haunting work. Four Dogs, Spain, 1955, pits dark canine shapes against a blazing orange background, packing into the painting’s surface all the torrid heat and exhaustion of a dying afternoon. Dogs in Sunlight, Spain, 1955, looks more like a murder scene. Paint is spattered as if from exploded arteries; coagulating washes of maroon seep through the canvas.

On the gallery’s sprawling upper floors, the intensity of the artist’s morbid motifs—including fish heads and squid, flanks of lamb in an abattoir, yet more skulls—became somewhat dulled through endless reiteration. But in Cunningham’s lonely, piercing portraits of individual sitters, he captures a kind of mercy. In Despair, 1956, a naked woman sits hunched in a chair, the despondency of her flesh etched in deep black lines and a palette that’s almost ashen. The figure in Woman Looking Down, 1956, arms tightly clasped beneath her breasts, appears to be hanging onto herself for dear life.

After declining full membership in the London Group in 1960, Cunningham stopped exhibiting altogether in 1967, never explaining why. (According to his widow Bobby Hillson, “he just didn’t want to talk about things that really mattered to him.”) However, he continued to paint in a makeshift studio in a former Battersea chapel, kept company by an array of skulls and his own dogged perseverance.

Again and again, we sense the artist’s life force fusing with his enigmatic imagery. One can almost feel, in the vibrating physicality of the paintings, an unnerving sympathy between artist and subject. Take Old Man Smiling, from as early as 1953: outsize nose like a commedia dell’arte mask, mouth leering as if at some private joke or piece of bad news, dissembling a secretive kind of inwardness.