Shadow Archive Exhibition Review

Shadow Archive is an exhibition of ghost-like figurative works by 2017 Hix -Award winning artist Sam Bailey. It is Bailey’s inaugural solo exhibition and comprises a series of paintings and etchings based on figures found in archival photographs from the 1980s. These figures, we learn from the press release, are all activists participating in undisclosed past protests. 

None of the selected source images are iconic of their time and the figures are notable for their anonymity, casualness and unassuming nature. Most are framed tightly and depict, on a life-size scale, the head and shoulders of the activists. Whether they are lost in thought; inhaling on a cigarette or staring out beyond the lens of the camera, there is no action to view – be it playful or aggressive. There is no sense of protest ‘as spectacle’, which one has come to expect from stock images of protests that span difficult periods of history such as Thatcherism, or of the opportunist publicity-craving showmanship that typifies those in the 21st century who wish to draw attention to themselves and to their cause. Instead, these are (by news standards), non-moments that hold little photojournalist value. They are quiet and personal snapshots of individuals reflecting on contemporaneous events.

If indeed these individuals are activists, Bailey represents them as lifeless, tired, gaunt and world- weary. Most of them have little fight left in them and others seem as though their fight is no longer worth fighting. Often, the same figure appears in multiple paintings- echoing the ease in which the source material (the photographic negative), can be reproduced. 

In each version, Bailey explores in myriad ways his medium’s ability to represent loss and detachment. The detail is elusive. Like a series of poorly-taken photographs, faces are often largely hidden in shadows, out of focus or over-exposed. Francis Bacon, a painter well known for his use of photographic source material, and for his inclination to paint the same figure multiple times, springs to mind in the painting ‘Untitled’ (2018). In this, the purple body, yellow hair and the anguished white face are reminiscent of the figure in the 1953 painting; Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. This series of paintings not only referenced Velazquez’s portrait but also a film still of a screaming woman from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. In the Pope series of paintings, Bacon returns repeatedly to the motif of a screaming man, imprisoned and suffocated by his caged environment. Since the figures in Bailey’s paintings lack anything of an external world, their screams must reflect one of intense internal conflict.

 Soft and lacking delineation, globules of paint from spray cans, resembling grain from an analogue photograph, slowly materialise its subject from the blank canvas or paper that they inhabit. Paint is notable more for its immateriality than for its materiality. A sense of impermanence and transience is reinforced by the choice of material upon which the paint is fixed. Often it is newspaper print or brown kraft paper; the type that is more commonly used in packaging. Both materials are a diminishing part of our everyday fabric, and are used to transfer something- be it information or an object- from one party to another. More importantly, they are discarded and disposed of immediately after use. In these materials the activists’ protests appear fleeting and insubstantial. 

Internally, Bailey’s paintings harbour a protest to echo that of the activists. They lack descriptive detail and employ cheap, everyday, lo-fi materials that are very much at odds with the established protocols of traditional portraiture painting. 

Protest is most apparent in the painting ‘Untitled’ (2018), of a full bodied figure; one of only two in the series. In the painting, the figure looks more like a strange sea-creature that is slowly walking out of the ocean, heavily laden in water-soaked clothes. In the image, the outline of the frame upon which the kraft-paper is fixed, appears through the paper and becomes an integral part of the painting. At first glance you believe you are looking at the back of the painting. 

At 122cm x 244 cm the figure in the painting looms above us. Wearing heavy- set trousers, jacket and boots, their choice of outfit has been designed to survive the elements. Rendered in patches of gold paint, it has the appearance of army camouflage clothing. With their hands in their jacket pocket, and their body hunched to keep warm, a bright gold aura envelops them in an ethereal glow. White paint has been sprayed on to depict a hat and the softness of its form reads like a halo. The figure’s face is hidden behind paint that drips down towards the floor like tentacles from an octopus. It also brings to mind the collage ‘Union Mask’ made by Peter Kennard in 2003 as part of a Stop the War Coalition campaign. In it Planet Earth wears a gas mask. It’s eye sockets are filled with the Star-Spangled Banner and Union Jack, and a stream of bombs fly out of its mouthpiece. In Bailey’s painting, the activist is an angelic, faceless beast. It is the activism that is of interest and value here not the activist. Their ideals and the future for which they fight is the focus of Bailey’s attention. The consistent presence of absence and loss, however, paints a depressing picture of sorrow and mourning. Cultural theorist Mark Fischer’s theory of ‘Hauntology’ which he first discussed in his blog K-Punk in 2006, and more recently in 2014 in his book Ghosts of My Life, echoes this sentiment: that we are haunted by a spectre of a future that we can never have.

The book brings together themes of politics and cultural aesthetics, as well as his personal vulnerabilities ,to describe the condition of ‘Hauntology’ as a modern day malaise in which the idealism and cultural innovation of the past, specifically the 1970s, is regularly plundered under the guise of nostalgia for its promise of a future. This future, Fisher argues, has not yet materialised and whilst lost to us now, it continues to haunt us with its presence. Fisher appropriated the term from the philosopher Jacques Derrida who originally coined the term in 1993 in his book Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the work of Mourning and the New International. In it Derrida evoked the term to describe how ‘even after the fall of Communism and the triumph of globalised free market capitalism, the contemporary world remained haunted by that movement’s originating ideals: social justice, equality, a kinder world free of exploitation and deprivation’.1.     Fisher argues that the 70s provide a political landscape of social democracy defined by ‘processes of democratisation and pluralism’ that provided the promise of a future worth fighting for. He uses culture, specifically music and the invention of new genres as a reflection of the presence of a truly democratic framework and argues that only a society that provides opportunity for true cultural innovation is able to advance towards the before mentioned tenets of socialist political ideology.  

Bailey’s figures from the 80s tap into this moment. The Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which Bailey refers to in the press release, spoke to a generation of the value in collective action, a way of life, and whilst arduous, a necessary path to take to insure a brighter future for ones children. In our modern digital world, protest has been made much easier and far less demanding. With a click of a button one can join an online petition that is delivered to parliament to debate. The physicality of protest, the commitment to an ideal and the belief in enabling social and/or political change, like the physical presence of Bailey’s activists appears in this day and age to have been lost. 

Fisher compares this collective feeling of political and social impotence to the present period of cultural conservatism. He places blame on the forces of capitalism for suffocating and stifling the energy, time and space required for true cultural innovation. Consequently, in our demand for quick fixes, it is the past that offers an easy promise of a ‘minimal variation on an already familiar satisfaction’.

Appearing like apparitions and spectres of their former selves, the haunting figures of the activists in Bailey’s paintings provide a succinct illustration of Fisher’s theory. And whilst in Fisher’s opinion, the future has not only, not arrived, but is now no longer even a possibility. Cultural reflection and the production of such paintings as in Shadow Archive, however, clearly constitute a protest of their own- and a refusal to give up past generations’ hopes and dreams for a future worth fighting for. 

 

 1.Reynolds, Simon. https://pitchfork.com/features/article/why-burials-untrue-is-the-most-important-electronic-album-of-the-century-so-far/