Published by Belmacz, November 2017
This is Paul Cézanne, peering around his easel at the jumble of fruits he’s dumped on the table. He’s screwing up his left and right eyes alternately, and with every screw of the eye his brow, already pretty furrowed, furrows deeper. We all know what happens next – the double-exposure outlines that trace this binocular disparity, and all the shimmering and shifting forms of modernist art they’ll engender – but hold that image there, still. If it helps, add the smell of turpentine and orange peel, birds in the distance, smoke twisting in the morning light. Thirty or so years later, Pablo Picasso will say in an interview that what interests us is Cézanne’s anxiety, his own transformative anxiety probably seeming very distant, even quite amusing, then. It’s what interests us (art historians) too: Cézanne’s neurosis as a useful event, a sensitive snowflake that created an avalanche. But that’s to see the history of painting through the wrong end of the binoculars. Say that restless worrying at the problem of representing the world – how to fold all of that (gestures at this room, that table, those fruits, that light) into this (cocks a thumb at a canvas) – remains unresolved. That what Cézanne left us wasn’t a toolkit of solutions, easily adapted to purpose, but a set of questions intrinsic to the medium that are no less urgent for being over a century old. Maybe, because of that, even more so. Like: what is this thing, painting? And: what is this thing, looking?
This is a painting by Paul Housley. Like many of the artist’s works, its primary elements feel mustily inherited, moth-torn costumes in a theatrical wardrobe. A body is shown mid-chest upwards, like something we’ve already seen. Inherited too is Renaissance portraiture’s internal hierarchy of parts, set up in mimicry of the way we meet the faces that we meet. Eyes then mouth, then face, then body, then background. Housley’s paintings generally work this way, warming up the crowd with some old material first. And these theatrical allusions feel right for Housley’s work, where western painting’s great crowd-pleasers are subject to revival at any point: the reclining nude, the moonlit glade, figures on a beach, flowers in a vase. Familiarity is a kind of hospitality.
And isn’t. Like the artists he most admires – inspirations worn, more than most living painters you might name, right on his sleeve – Housley’s paintings treat the tropes of his medium as temporary garments. And the fit is often, wilfully, an awkward one. In Boy with an Eyepatch, for instance, the bust-length figure both emerges from and is somehow obscured by the density of its surface. Paint built in granular layers drags a face into recognition, or almost does. Here, as in most of Housley’s paintings, the more sustained the act of making – the more clotted and lunar the surface – the less visible the subject becomes. Each painting finds itself by stopping at the moment neither surface nor subject matter has the upper hand. Looking and making knock knees around the canvas. This is Cézanne too, and Matisse, and Picasso. The same old problems. The same old lack of solutions.
It’s the eyepatch, though, that you notice first. In almost every Housley painting of a figure with an eyepatch – and there are enough to constitute a trend, if not a strategy – the darkest colour is reserved for that dark blot over the left eye. Without its strap, cursorily described against the bright forehead in a whip of black paint, the patch could be an empty socket. Housley’s muzzy delineation of facial features ensures that the skeletal afterimage that impresses on the retina can neither be blinked away nor entirely discredited. Deathliness haunts the paintings, most forcefully in their mottled crusts, which propose a painting as a means of tracking passing time through the preservation of unruly matter. (Again, as in Cézanne, the subject is painting itself – its slipperiness, its hoariness – which means, always, embracing the medium’s shortcomings). Every painting – all painting – is a memento mori, guttering candles and skulls notwithstanding. The joke is that you decay and the painting doesn’t. But in Housley’s paintings, melancholy is always played for laughs. The studio is a haunted house, with Velázquez and Titian ham actors in ghost costumes jumping out and going boo.
In the museum, a nude woman stretched out on rumpled sheets fills the length of a canvas, and another, and another. Room after room. The categories of western painting – nude, landscape, still life, portrait – are really just codes for painting itself: a way of saying this is what a painting looks like. After all, what’s a painter going to paint but a female nude? Isn’t that what paintings are? And so Housley, the heavy breath of several centuries of painters at his neck, makes a painting. In one, the arched black cat of Édouard Manet’s Olympia turns up (itself a sardonic riff on the sleeping dog in Titian’s Venus of Urbino). In another, it gets a stroke on the head. The woman’s left hand plays out an erotic scenario (Titian-style) or an aggressive one (Manet-style). A curtain frames the space, or doesn’t. Her toes flex, or don’t. This is what painting looks like. Housley steps back from the canvas, screwing up one eye and then the other. The wall is filled, floor to ceiling, with paintings, like a scene set in an artist’s studio.