A Review of In Dirty Water at J Hammond Projects, London
The vernacular of the body is a linguistic labyrinth, one that holds minotaurean dangers for the artist. George Rouy’s most recent body of work, on view at J Hammond Projects under the title In Dirty Water, takes the most Grecian approach to the fleshy vessels of our being. Sexless, transient and limp, Rouy’s subjects do not speak to sex in spite of their orgiastic appearance, but isolate the gaseous consciousness caught in the roundness of the human body.
J Hammond Projects in Archway is an obtuse L-shaped room that lends itself greatly to the work of Rouy. Straight-edged and brutal, this squared-off amphitheatre gives a narrative arc to a body of work that energetically hums from afar. And the show is a visual trifle in the space. Figures and animals are caught as if by camera-flash starkly against monochromatic backgrounds, deep blues and pale skies evince the tender skin of the artist’s prime subjects, some of whom lie in traction in knee-deep pools or stretch and fold distended limbs inside the canvas frame like dancers emulating a Brice Marden.
The ambiguity of the subject matter and the artist’s process in this selection of paintings is bound up in its fascination. Whilst the works appear sexual, to say they go no further would be unfairly simplistic. The pink monumentality of the bodies that we see in Closer (all works 2017), Forever and Flower bear commonalities with the neoclassical works of Picasso from the early 1920s – the barrel-bodied forms and swollen hands.
“Images of full-roundness help us to collect ourselves, permit us to confer an initial constitution on ourselves, and to confirm our being intimately, inside.” – Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
As life emerged from the water millions of years ago, Rouy makes a point to return humanity to the dirty origins in Submission and In Dirty Water. We’ve come full circle, and the centrifugal compositions are recurrent in the work, not least as a means to knit humanity into nature. In renditions of 'Leda and the Swan' from Ovid’s Metamorphoses we see a comparable spiral, the neck of the transformed Zeus looping across the shoulders of Leda as the bird (often explicitly) lies between her open legs. Roundness is evidently essential to Rouy as a means to a structural end, but its psychic value is the one we feel the most.
The motif of the broken neck and rigid facial features are gently monstrous. The gormlessness of their expressions is disturbing; mouths slightly agape, they flutter between absenteeism and painful grimace. The blend and bleed of the paintings would give evidence enough that the works were airbrushed – the likes of Katherine Bernhardt, Austin Lee and New Contemporaries nominee Felix Treadwell, represents a spread of current artists with a penchant for the technique.
But the brush never left the hand of Rouy, whose process of staining the raw canvas has more in common with Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Rothko, and has developed a fuller grade of finish since his exhibition at The Dot Project in 2016. At times the technique is the essence of the painting – the skin is brought to life through the liquid layering of colour on the cotton. Deploying the background last and cropping the central figures in dark wash, however, creates a visual focus that at times betrays the composition with a hard edge that draws the eye.
There are myriad art historical references (known and deliberate or not) present in this show, not least a work of Cézanne, Les Grandes Baigneuses (1898). The act of bathing may be seen as quasi-religious – baptismal and cleansing – or more seductive and scandalous: the eroticism of a lady at her toilette, the fury of Diana upon Actaeon’s witnessing her chaste body. Dwelling in dirty water, the subjects are not just guilty but irredeemable. Is shame the essence to this body of work? The languishing subjects of Submission are caught in a twisted beauty that is humiliating above all else. To an audience they are funny, they are disturbing, but they feel markedly human and knowable.
In Woody Allen’s 1975 film Love & Death, Allen’s character Boris, when asked what he believes in, responds: “sex and death. Two things that come once in a lifetime – but at least after death you’re not nauseous.” This tragic humour (and superb frankness of delivery) speaks to the paintings of Rouy, whose works on show here are not elaborate – the austerity of the subject is elemental to its weight – and yet contain a nucleus of associative games that, as Bachelard writes, are intimately inside ourselves: sex, life and death.
This exhibition does feel monumental – the canvases of Flower and Forever are physically overbearing, the claustrophobia of the composition intense and disconcerting. The liminal body serves a shamanistic purpose, and shrouds us in a meaning absolved of gender politics and banality. We’re seeing a strong resurgence in contemporary figurative painting; our bodies are bypassed more and more and left for dead – stockpiled if you will. Rouy’s work will have its part to play in speaking up for our bodies left wallowing.
Written by Oliver Morris Jones, a Contributor to Arteviste.