Return to the Conflict Zone

Jay Merrick, Art Review, August 2005

Gerry Judah’s remarkable new series of paintings ‘Frontiers’, concerns the rupture of places, and architecture, by violence. To consider these big canvases and their delicate collages of desolated urban zones in places such as Jenin and Mostar, is to experience the ghostly complexities of a present without a past, and with no apparent future.

The layers of Lascaux acrylic gesso lie like ash on the canvas, thread and extruded foam, reminding us of the last lines of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’ and of that moment when ‘snow was general all over Ireland…His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon the living and the dead.’

The sterile whiteness of Judah’s scenography, the dove-grey shadows and the peculiarly exquisite details of ruin nudge the viewer into amoral sensualism; the eye scans these scenes almost like the camera in the nose cone of a smart bomb; one looks, with a mixture of guilt and nihilism, for a tiny, target-locating laser beam razoring its implacably precise way across the surfaces of these skewed walls, the regurgitated air-conditioner units, the rubble and the television aerials.

There are no cars in these scenes, no tiny stick-people. The nature of loss implicit in these little streets and alleys is compromised by a sense of utter finality, and we are left to consider the wrecked architecture of these cut-and-pasted places as a textural vision whose history is known to us through media images which, after decades, we often ignore. The places in these paintings have no identity. And, as we consider them, our identities are on hold, too.

Wreckage as archetype. But if we are tempted to recall the idealised architectural decays of Piranesi, we quickly remember that in Iraq and the Palestinian West Bank, destruction is sudden and beyond ordered description. The ‘Frontiers’ series, a work in progress currently being monitored by gallerists in New York and London, throws up another ruthless idea. Have war zones supplied the conditions for a new Picturesque art?

In the 19th Century, Ruskin defined the essence of the Picturesque as a ‘sublimity not inherent in the nature of the thing, but caused by something external to it.’ He championed the rough, contrived irregularity of corresponding forms and materials, to produce a faux-savage and parasitical relationship between the man-made and the natural. The only parasite in Judah’s studio is the viewer. One pores over the details of ‘Frontiers’ – there are seven works so far – as if this might mediate the original violence of his scenes. Judah’s return to painting follows years of success in film and opera set design and large-scale sculptures for clients including Lord March. He has also worked for Andrei Tarkovsky and Ridley Scott Associates. Several months ago, he felt compelled to produce the ‘Frontiers’ series – not as a point of creative departure, but a return to fine art roots which, after Goldsmiths and the Slade, gave him a place in 1975’s selection of Young British Sculptors at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.

The new work is riven with the tensions embodied in the model of the Auschwitz death-camp Judah created for the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition in 2000. When he saw photographs of Jenin in January, he culled hundreds more images from the net. “I became a war artist who didn’t go to war. Working on these paintings is paradoxical. You’re listening to your CDs. You’re making sure that these places are growing out of the canvas. It colonises your soul, because it’s not just about the gesso and the texture – it’s about destruction.”

And JMW Turner. One can link Judah’s new work to Anselm Kiefer – the artist’s 1997 book Lieber Rot Als Tot (‘Better Red Than Dead’) springs to mind – or to Jasper John’s pale and mysterious ‘Usuyuki’ prints (1978-81) or ‘White Flag’ paintings (1955 – 58), but Turner’s wildly swirling seascapes is where Judah is ultimately coming from. The power radiated by Judah luminous urban crusts have nothing to do with nature, however, and everything to do with the impure forces of cultural viciousness. The work is a big ask without an answer. It is, though, extremely gripping.