Confusion, paradox, contradiction, illusion. These are the kind of abstracts that American artist Joshua Hagler addresses in his new London exhibition, Chimera. The title is a reference to the Greek mythological beast that sported the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. It has come to symbolise something that is hoped for but impossible to achieve.
In many ways, My God, his portrait, above, of Michael Jackson with his God-like pretensions, encapsulates these impulses and contradictions. How can you still love the music of a highly-talented performer, a God to his fans, yet someone whom you suspect of having abused young boys? Why are people so obsessed by the aspiration towards celebrity particularly when it’s more often than not illusory. Why do people hunger for heroes and villains?
With his large oil paintings, part abstract, part figuration, hybrids like the Chimera itself, Hagler bids to convey this sense of dichotomy and confusion on more than one level. His inspiration for this show is partly based on seeing the German Expressionist work of Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde.
Beckmann was an acclaimed artist whose fortune changed when Adolf Hitler came to power. He was dubbed a “cultural Bolshevik” and his work “degenerate art”. He was forbidden to work and teach which forced him to leave Germany. Similarly, Emil Nolde was branded as degenerate and forbidden to work and to sell what he’d already painted. This was particularly confusing because Nolde had been a Nazi sympathiser.
Hagler saw, in the works and their historical context, parallels with the current state of the world. He references the way populist beliefs lead to oversimplification and polarisation. “We are creating these identities out of what we think to be our opposite,” he explains, “and that drags us further and further out to the poles and the loudest voice gathers the most people around them and you’re sort of with us or against us. I think the sort of limitations of the language in the political and public sphere is driving us into a frenzy.”
Hagler has reflected that frenzy in works such as The Call and the Called (The Dogs Grow Larger) on the left. With its swirling shapes, aggressive and threatening figures, surreal and cluttered, it implies what he calls “violence of the mind”, the way we impose a narrative or a set of assumptions on another person or a group of people to suit our political needs.
To create the work, Hagler made three studies of Beckmann paintings and painted each one on top of the other. Then he stripped away each layer as he built it up. The distortions from the stripping, tearing and cutting not only render a schizophrenic effect but allude to fading and distorted memories.
He has used the same process of painting and stripping for Babel, above, based on the work of Emil Nolde. Between 1938 and 1945 when he was banned, Nolde made what he called his “unpaintings”, small works, usually watercolours, he’d paint on to note cards or pieces of paper and give to his friends discreetly. Hagler has reconfigured and re-interpreted them on a large scale and painted and “unpainted” them. So why, I wondered, did he not create work that is influenced by his artistic forbears rather than try to re-make them, albeit in his own way?
“I’m very much interested in connecting with the lineage. That’s more a priority for me than trying to make someone believe I’m totally original. I see it as consulting with my ancestors.” However, the layering concept and the element of chance in the stripping process that makes the artist unsure of exactly how the piece is going to turn out, does give it a sense of originality.
The Secret (1), above, was inspired not by a painter but by the film director Ken Russell and his 1971 film The Devils. The film, based on a real-life incident in which a group of nuns were supposedly possessed by the devil, contained highly explicit sexual scenes and was banned in many places and still difficult to get hold of. “I’m very interested in material like that, something that offends every sensibility’, Hagler says smiling. “But for me the most interesting stills were not with the orgies but simple scenes of nuns whispering into the ears of priests.” It could equally serve as a demagogue planting provocation into a supporter’s mind.
He has made three versions of the title, and in each one it becomes increasingly difficult to see exactly which mouth belongs to which face and which fingers belong to which hand and so on. It’s the Chimera raising its ugly form again.
When I spoke to Joshua Hagler, the world had just witnessed the unedifying sight of Trump supporters, egged on by the President, chanting “send her back” about a woman of colour who was also an American citizen. This is the kind of hysteria and frenzy that has overtaken much of our current political discourse, and Hagler’s work has captured this zeitgeist.
Chimera is showing at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, London W1S 1HD until 31 August 2019.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.