You couldn’t think of a more appropriate time for mounting a retrospective of Leon Golub (1922-2004). What with the recent reports of CIA torture, and the brutalities of America’s increasingly militarised police forces, the late US painter’s angry, politically-charged work suddenly feels incredibly urgent again – particularly his most iconic and malevolent paintings, the ‘Interrogation’ and ‘Mercenaries’ series from the ’80s. Although their original context was different (Golub was mainly addressing the USA’s involvement in Latin America), his pieces from this period radiate a kind of pure, untrammelled savagery, depicting a world where injustice and inhumanity go hand-in-hand with power and authority. Sound familiar?
Indeed, part of what makes these enormous canvases so powerful is the way they directly implicate you, the viewer. With their intense red backgrounds, they bear down on you like a kind of threat, as a uniformed police chief menacingly points towards you, or a covert operative turns to glare at you while stuffing a body into a car boot. You feel intimidated and terrorised. Yet at the same time, by simply gazing at these atrocities, for living in a world where such things occur, you also feel complicit – particularly when confronted with Golub’s horrific depiction of torture.
The rest of the exhibition focuses on earlier and later periods. Works from the ’50s and ’60s show Golub developing his dense, heavily worked style, the slathered and scraped surfaces appearing marbled, molten, inherently violent. Early titles – ‘Poised Sphinx’, ‘Colossal Torso’ – indicate archetypal themes he initially explored, before Vietnam redirected his energies. What’s most interesting about his paintings from the ’90s is the way they fuse these two strands, combining social commentary with a return to mythological themes. The different scenes – pornographic fragments, advertising slogans, the man-god Prometheus being savaged by an eagle – jostle darkly together, creating the sense of a world perpetually mired in brutality.