The title’s exclamation mark seems wrong given the weedy grisaille of many of Richard Artschwager’s portraits, sorry, Portraits! Yet this peppy punctuation point was a favourite motif of the American artist whose death, just a couple of weeks before this show opened, robbed contemporary art of one of its great nonconformists – an indefatigable dismantler of objects and images, values and beliefs who spoke the languages of conceptualism, minimalism and pop in pithily poetic sentences.
In fact the exhibition title makes perfect sense. On display are portrait paintings and a three-dimensional exclamation mark, which resembles a bloated bottlebrush. The paintings are bafflingly contradictory. Sensitive figure studies such as the ghostly ‘Self Portrait with Green Background’ (2009) draw you in only to repel with pockmarks and machine-made stippling. In place of painted surface texture, with its noble intimations of the hard-won image, Artschwager gives us imitation – mass produced supports like Celotex insulation board – and a weak drizzle of paint. He then sets his images in thick, often colourful, frames to emphasise the kind of physical heft the images themselves resolutely lack.
The strategy is deliberately discomforting. An artist who embraced Formica, calling it ‘the great ugly material, the horror of the age’, Artschwager rubs our noses in the fake but never just for the sake of confrontation. Running through his work is a sense of things not being quite what they seem that, mirroring a world of dodgy bankers and burgers, gains a darkly comic momentum. All plastic bristles on the outside, solid mahogany (we’re told) within, Artschwager’s exclamation mark sculpture is typical of his back-to-front, inside out take on things. It’s both a showstopper and a warning sign – playful and, with a rock solid core, perhaps even a little hopeful.
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