Monday, May 10, 2010

Stuart Semple, Morton Metropolis

First published on theartsdesk.com

Almost vibrating with tension: 'A Pounding Outside Poundland' by  Stuart Semple

Almost vibrating with tension: 'A Pounding Outside Poundland' by Stuart Semple (c) Stuart Semple Industries

Sincerity is not a quality the contemporary art world seems to value: the masking of emotions under layers of irony is where we stand. But while Damien Hirst paints from a cynical palette, British Pop Artist Stuart Semple's Nineties-inflected paintings have sincerity to spare.
The Happy House, his new show at Morton Metropolis and his first in London for three years, combines the commercial tropes of Pop Art as refracted through a certain naffness with self-portraits both visual and emotional.

This is clear in the show’s outstanding picture, A Pounding Outside Poundland, where Semple recreates the time he was assaulted outside the titular mart. It has the shrinking awfulness of the enthusiastic Poundland logo (“yes! everything’s £1”), the assailant in a skeleton tracksuit and mask, glaring at the viewer, and Semple in a kapow!-style stagger, complete with neon flashes to exaggerate the force.

comfortablynumb_high_2The way in which Semple plays with the time scheme – the skeleton has already hit him and turned away, while he is in the instant after the blow – gives each figure much more potency and individuality and puts the event in a permanent state of happening, the canvas almost vibrating with this tension. The cartoonish power-lines try and inject some levity but serve only to heighten the tension, like a weak joke at a wake. That this is all taking place outside Poundland makes it that bit grimier even as Semple is mocking it.

Anything before 2008 suddenly seems appealing, as suggested by titles like Comfortably Numb (pictured above right) and Killing Me Softly cribbed from golden oldies; the crosses emblazoned with “Our Price”, “Biggie” and “Working Class” in the former picture hark back to what is no longer with us.

These are very much post-recession works, disdaining the indulgent Noughties: there is a tiny Jeff Koons balloon-rabbit in silhouette in the far distance, and one of the decade’s stars, Kate Moss, is a cheap and corpulent patriotic stripper in Welcome to Middletown. (Nostalgia is, after all, free.) Pairs of suspicious eyes taken from the cartoon Trapdoor hang around the canvas, while the word “HAPPY” in emetic colours and manic-depressive arrangement suggests we are anything but.

KillingMeSoftly_LOW_RESIn Killing Me Softly (pictured left), Semple layers a message to a former lover over what looks like a Harajuku Lolita in front of a distant forest. Each letter of the message is in a different colour (in one of the matt paints he has designed especially for his work), dizzying the viewer as the girl stares out from behind huge red sunglasses.

The message in part reads “Maybe… you’ll see me as I paint this song”, and that captures what Semple is doing with this exhibition: by melding wide-ranging cultural references with an intense emotionality – finishing this painting with “i miss you… Good luck, Goodbye xxx” [sic] in his own script – and his vital yet sensitive technique, he is making Pop Art personal.

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