This exhibition investigates the physical body as mortal flesh. There are fundamental truths exhibited in this work which investigates both the chosen subject and the chosen medium in primary ways. The relationship of subject and medium are purposeful, deliberate and prophetic when we begin to unpick what this work is attempting to investigate and discuss as subject matter. Whilst the process was motivated by attempting to employ the ‘autonomous’ qualities of paint, tonality masks the impact and potentially reductive appearance of such a visual device. More akin to Sickert than Auerbach - the painter here is deliberately trying to avoid mimesis through disciplining the working process and avoiding the usual academic confines (what Gombrich called the ‘schematic strictures’) to unleash the primordial, the intuitive, the unfettered in an attempt to get at the ‘essence’ of corporeality.
The Soviet Gulags which housed some 18 million petty criminals, political prisoners and religious dissenters are the subject of the images we see here in this exhibition. Their portraits become a vehicle to tell their story, to remind us of our cruelty and inhumanity to each other. Brutal and confrontational in their content, unflinching in their honesty, these reminders of the paradoxical nature we share show us that mortality is a very fragile thing which can be taken away from us at any moment and sometimes at the hands of others. Un-sentimental yet prophetic, these paintings and mono-prints investigate human presence and absence. This work captures historical moments which are suspended in time. As with photography, these paintings act as snapshots of our social history as a reminder and testimony to the history we share, the potential we harbour for history to be repeated and the regularity in which it does.
The role of photography is fundamental in the image making process. Composition and scale in these paintings are both dictated by expediently pre-selected archival photographic imagery. At the beginnings of photography, artists such as Degas, Vuillard and Caillebotte all painted from photographic sketches as start-points. More recently the Post War German artists such as Richter and Keiffer and Photo-Realists such as Morley and Estes made use of photography as a critical part in the painting process. The relationship of painted image derived from photographic archival start-point begs questions of the status of this work but the answer is found in the content and treatment of the work and not in the medium alone.
A combination of social anthropology and our philosophical understanding of time enable this work to be enriched and understood beyond the process of an artist exploring a subject through paint. Like cinematic flashbacks, these images become mnemosigns (Gilles Deleuze) in paint which are recollection images as psychologically charged memories. Our collective histories are faced head-on in this exhibition and the brutality of fact stares directly at us both as a reminder of these individuals and as a challenge to our collective consciences. The subjects of these works are victims or the disappeared. Even the self-portrait and the nude models examine the passive/ aggressive relationship via the camera as probing devise and investigate the status of the relationships evident in the positioning of being behind or in front of the camera. The viewer is an active part in this investigation as we are voyeuristically caught up in the schematic – artist, audience and artwork
Nigel Mason is a scholar of painting. This exhibition manifests several interests and pre-occupations which are evident in the work. These have been learned and not invented, subsumed and not felt – ultimately understood and not approximated. In order to break free of the schematic and move into the intuitive, an artist must understand what these academic schemas are, what mimesis is and see these in their broader contexts and varying and multi-faceted modes both in antiquity and in a more ‘contemporary’ timeframe. Nigel Mason talks passionately about the history of art and the role it plays in his own practice. In discussion with him, he explains the need in this exhibition to move away from the use of ‘paint as mimic’ towards revealing ‘the autonomy of paint’. Even in such dark subject matter, the joy of paint and its application scream out at as loudly as the gravity of the subject matter, but, he is also a social anthropologist in as much as Gauguin could be seen to be, he is also a painter of events in time in the same way that Eakins could be seen to, he is a painter with a conscience in as much as Goya could be seen to have, he is a painter who is able to remind us that our flesh is mortal in as much as Freud can be seen to and he is a painter who overwhelmingly wishes to ‘represent’ and affirm the human condition in as much as Bacon can be seen to.
These portraits act to affirm their prior existence/ presence (a human life), their experience (the human condition) and their fate (absence). Corporeality is frail and impermanent which is discussed very lucidly in this work. Presence and the affirmation of this and the theme of mortal fragility are best seen in the self-portrait by Nigel Mason. The use of monumental scale affirms the presence of the artist in this exhibition. Our viewpoint is manipulated to give the appearance that we are looking up at the artist subsequently exaggerating the sense of The Colossus or perhaps metaphorically/ metaphysically directing our view to the ‘heavens’ (Michelangelo and Brancusi). The body-prints, derived from working directly with a life-model, reflect the choreography of the life cycle Edvard Munch (Dance of Life) and Henri Matisse (La Danse). The three paintings of artist’s models are close to three-quarter life-size re-animations of anonymous female models from selected photographic studios taken from the turn of the 20C with evident homage to Rubens/ Canova (The Three Graces) although with a frankness and painterly treatment more akin to Manet or Freud. The portraits of Soviet Gulag inmates are Neo-Expressionistic in feel but Expressionistic in appearance with more kinship with Kollwitz than with Clemente. The most harrowing of these portraits is of a woman staring at us clutching at her breast in an attempt to find some semblance of modesty. What we don’t see as the artist has painted them into the background, into the dark abyss of the subject of the work, is a camp guard who is about to execute her. What she reveals in her expression is a woman reconciled to the impending event, there is Pathos in her face which is both fatalistic for her and portentous for us all.
Ironically, and not overlooked by the artist, when we consider the dictionary definition of corporeality, it is impossible not to see in this work the reference to the ‘soul’, of ‘sentience’, reflected in each of the faces of the subjects painted by Nigel Mason. It is hard not to look into the eyes of each of these subjects and see pathos and meta-physicality. It may be that one cannot discuss the physical nature of flesh (corporeal) alone and devoid of the impact of the brain’s rationalising, dreaming, hoping, wishing, philosophising, as this ignores the very organ that makes us human, perhaps, or indeed inhuman perhaps?
It is poignant that we are recognising the centenary of the start of the First World War this year which adds gravity to the content of this exhibition. ‘Lest we forget’ adds focus to the shared responsibilities we carry in relation to such a legacy and the legacy of countless despicable and unforgiveable acts in which every name and cause in history has manifested our paradoxical nature in such grotesque and unforgettable ways. We look on as viewer/ bystanders but we are far from innocent.