5 March 2015

Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue: Serpentine Gallery

The subject of Golub's paintings could hardly be more powerful or important - the times when reason and conscience have been left far behind and only everyday brutality remains. The point of torture, the irredeemable state of fighting, aggression and oppression - the endless hopelessness of it all. Large paintings on cut canvas directly on the walls show soldiers at their terrible work, whether that is stuffing someone in a car boot, going through with the mechanics of torturing a naked woman or endlessly warring with each other. It's all unspeakable but a sadly true testament to what the world can never seem to be rid of. There is no appeal.

I broke a rule I have by looking around to see what other reviews might say - terrible weak thing to do! So far only Adrian Searle in the Guardian has given a view, all other script is blurb about the exhibition:


I gave in to this craven impulse because I found these paintings problematic, and not because of the subject - and that's my problem. It seems churlish to complain about certain aspects of the paintings because it seems like arguing with the horror of of their content. But as paintings they have a certain flat style which is not expressive of the pain they portray - especially the mid-years paintings which are giant and take up the central position in the exhibition. There is an almost naive style which keep moving the eye towards things that are slightly wrong - the angle or size of a hand, the emphasis on the irrelevant details, the face which looks stuck on, as if the artist's technique was not up to the task he gave himself. I much preferred the later more sketchy and suggestive works, and indeed the earlier more marbled and abstract works with figures seemingly sculpted out from the paint.

I was bothered as to whether this was a deliberate ploy to distract the viewer's attention from the main event, in the way that people always seem to look the other way from torturous regimes. I think that I just didn't trust the artist enough that this was what he was doing. I found my eye kept being drawn to and bothered about the wrong things, almost like working out if a leg could really be at that angle, and musing on how hard it is to draw hands. Not exactly cartoony, the figures and eyes are vacant, and for me the paintings are not integrated beyond the surface dimension. I found them passionless and empty, despite their power and impact.

 Leon Golub
White Squad (IV) El Salvador 1983

Perhaps it's the sort of adolescent vision or outsider/prison art aesthetic which matches the psychology behind the soldier mind set.

Dogs make a great metaphor for unbridled and unreasonable aggressions and fear, and are the real snarling heart of this show.

Leon Golub 

I read how important this work and this artist is. His activism and commitment against war was his life's work. Searle was much more convinced by the exhibition, but I am left with my confession that it didn't speak to me, twinned with my strange compulsion to be honest about that.

Leon Golub
Bite Your Tongue
Serpentine Gallery
4th March - 17th May


5th March 2015

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