It’s a common theme in history that reactionary groups look back to a so-called golden age, believing that society’s ills will be cured if one returned to the values of the good old days. It’s never that simple of course and the idea of a false collective memory looking at the past through a rose-tinted filter is the theme of Henrik Uldalen’s new solo exhibition, Lethe, at JD Malat Gallery.
The artist explores what he sees as the zeitgeist of the current political landscape in the West through a series of portraits which are both distorted and bathed in pink. These act as metaphors for the way collective memory is altered by fabricating a false but more comforting narrative when it comes to anything in history that might be construed as negative. Recognising this trend could avoid dissension and conflict he suggests.
His works resemble, albeit in heightened form, those old photos from the past that we’ve put away in a box and have become, like our memories, faded and degraded by age.
Uldalen is concerned, like many, by the polarisation in so many Western societies which he expresses in this diptych, Cede, with its stark division and turmoiled figure. Uldalen was born in South Korea in 1986 but was adopted as a five-month old baby and raised in Norway. He’s lived in Barcelona, Florence and Mexico City but has been in the UK since 2015. “Some of the language we use now is similar to things we saw 70 years ago and it’s scaring me,” he muses.
Uldalen has built a reputation (one million followers on Instagram) for thickly impastoed portraits that focus on the darker side of human emotion. They were introspective and he sees his new work as being more outward looking and more subtle in their message. “I’ve shifted from someone who was mostly interested in expressing something in himself, very self-involved, honest, to suddenly seeing out of the window and realising that the world is not the same. It’s terrifying.”
Clasp, above, focuses on the lengthened fingers as the subject tries desperately to cling to the past or maybe to cling on to himself, or his old self. There’s a desperation in all these works that he admits are reflections of himself. For him, painting is as much therapy as creativity.
“There’s always a darkness that I carry around and that completely engulfs me and I’m not a pleasant person to be around,” he tells me. “I’m not pleasant to myself. It’s pretty dark. When I paint I get to really dive into the core of things, maybe not really understanding it, maybe almost exhausting myself on it, so when I leave the studio, I get to be the person I want to be, unburdened.”
By looking less inwards and more outwards at the world, the new oil paintings are more likely to broaden their appeal. Technically, he’s developing a new style whereby he starts with the figures and then adds solvents to take away in a kind of push and pull movement until it feels right. “I’ve no idea where I’m going but it’s a more interesting journey,” he says smiling. Lumps of impasto pink are prominent, symbols of things we’ve left in the past and tried to ignore.
Unlike most portrait painters, Uldalen keeps the focus away from the eyes, to emphasise the metaphysical. He describes himself as an expressionist trapped in the body of a neo-classicist painter. He rarely goes to galleries and derives his main influences from books and movies. He cites director David Lynch as an example for the way that he is part abstract, part realist.
The exhibition’s title, Lethe, refers to the river of forgetfulness and oblivion in Greek mythology. There’s symbolic water from the river in a group of pretty pink porcelain vases he has created for the exhibition which are designed to support each other in a group but which fall apart when separated. He demonstrated this by allowing one to smash at the show’s preview.
Coincidentally, this took place on election day when the UK was voting to deliver Brexit, and the inference was obvious for all to see.
Lethe is Uldalen’s way to project his fears, feelings and emotions on to his paintings, each bursting with symbolism and no little skill even if, collectively, they are all variations on a theme. The ideas are not new but they are heartfelt and art is at its best when it can say so many important things in a single entity. It’s a problem though, in our polarised society, that so often one ends up, in whatever medium, of preaching to the converted.
Lethe is showing at JD Malat Gallery, 30 Davies Street, London W1K 4NB until 11 January 2020.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.