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Reality-Check

Jay Merrick, Goodwood Magazine, 2006

The British tend to distrust those who excel at more than one thing. If Stirling Moss had been revealed as having had a hugely successful second life as a covert existential philosopher called Maxim Neubauer [note: Alfred Neubauer was his manager at Mercedes; a sly joke], his reputation as one of the most sublimely gifted racing drivers of all time might have been jeopardised. But among the acutely talented characters who are invariably in the mix during the Goodwood Festival, at least one has dared to reveal a second strand to their creativity.

Gerry Judah is known to thousands of Festival regulars as the man who produces the high-drama motorsport sculptures that help give Lord March’s weeks a literally fantastic lift-off. In this guise, he’s a kind of entertainer. A few dozen people may know that he studied art at Goldsmiths and appeared in a 1975 Best of Young British Sculptors show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. But only a handful are au fait with the fact that Judah has returned to his original creative font to produce an extraordinary series of urban landscape paintings, which he calls Frontiers.

In doing so, he’s exposed himself to the kind of emotional and critical risk that has rarely impacted on his many years as a leading opera and film set designer for directors including Ridley Scott and Russia’s greatest postwar cinema visionary, Andrei Tarkovsky. The Frontiers series pose extraordinary challenges for the artist, in terms of sheer craft and compositional skill. Viewers, too, are on their mettle, propelled into a world – part fact, part fiction – of startling ambiguity.

Frontiers concerns the rupture of places, lives and architecture by violence. To stand before these big canvases, and their astonishingly delicate collages of desolated urban fabric drawn from places such as Jenin and Mostar, is to experience the ghostly complexities of a present without a past – and no apparent future. But Judah delivers these scenes in a way that is humane, rather than miserably vacant. Despite the raw subject matter, there is hope here, a sense of obdurate survival, a return of life.

Judah cites the swirling, late–period sea storm paintings of JM Turner as an inspiration – human striving in the grip of violent natural forces, a 19th century art right on the edge of artistic incoherence. One can also link Judah’s new work to Anselm Kiefer (the Athanor and Ngalfar visions spring to mind) or to Jasper John’s pale and mysterious Usuyuki or White Flag paintings.

But this art–historical box ticking seems too tidy. Judah’s painstakingly applied layers of Lascaux [correct] acrylic gesso lie like ash on his canvases and their fidgety accretions of thread and extruded foam. Their atmosphere, and pregnant stillness, recall the last lines of James Joyce’s short story, The Dead, 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 all the living and the dead.”

The Frontiers series (the first collection sold out at a show in Hoxton before Christmas) possess an equally delicate poetic nuance. They invoke the presence of absence, as the Ground Zero [caps correct] architect Daniel Libeskind puts it. Judah gives us a series of incredibly detailed stop–frames of places that are, in fact, collages of more than one town or village. This silent scenography, concerning the shattered remains of violence in the Middle East, offers no script, just momentary visions.

The sterile whiteness of Judah’s vistas, the dove–grey shadows and the strangely exquisite details of ruin nudge the viewer into an uncomfortable sensualism. The eye scans these scenes almost like the camera in the nosecone of a smart–bomb. One looks, with a mixture of guilt and expectation, for a tiny, target–locating laser bead razoring its implacably precise way across the surfaces of these breached walls, regurgitated air–conditioner units, rubble, and skewed television aerials.

There are no cars to be seen, no stick–people. An aura of loss pervades these little streets and alleys, overlaid by a conflicting sense of both finality and possibility. And we’re left to consider the wrecked architecture of these cut–and–pasted places as an abstracted textural vision whose history is familiar to us through years of media images, which we often ignore. The places in these paintings have no identity. And, as we consider them, our own identities are on hold, too.

Judah has given us wreckage as artistic archetype. But if we’re tempted to recall the idealised 18th century architectural decays of Piranesi, we quickly remember that in Iraq and the West Bank destruction is sudden and beyond ordered description. The Frontiers series throws up another possibility: are war–zones supplying the raw material for a new Picturesque art whose ghostly surfaces never quite settle in the centre of our vision?

In the 19th century, the art and social commentator John Ruskin defined the essence of the Picturesque as a ìsublimity not inherent in the nature of the thing, but caused by something external to it.î He championed the rough, contrived irregularity of corresponding forms and materials, the faux–ruins favoured by the gentry, and the parasitical relationship between the man–made and the natural. Is there something parasitical about looking at Judah’s paintings? One pores over the details of the new series looking for signs of life. There is more clear space on the new canvases, and something almost submarine about their new formality; the buildings suggest fractured hulls, and Judah talks of angel motifs.

His compulsion to pursue this subject matter was set up by the model of the Auschwitz death–camp that he created for the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust exhibition in 2000. But it was only when he saw television footage of Jenin last year that he began, obsessively, to pull hundreds of images of Middle Eastern war–zones from the Net. ìI became a war artists who didn’t go to war,î he said. ìWorking 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.

Not a cut–and–dried destruction, though. Not a destruction with neat edges, or a fixed time–frame, or one tied to a precise chain of cause–and–effect. Judah’s paintings are not petrified dead–ends. They are expressions of pure – no, make that impure phenomenology. And they are also an antidote to the kind of postmodern knowingness and irony that we might experience from the art world’s most brutally sardonic scenographers of the weird, the Chapman Brothers.

Judah’s paintings are a kind of anti–matter to what the great Swiss architect Peter Zumthor says about lives being increasingly dominated by ambiguity – ìeverything merging into everything else, and mass communication creates an artificial world of signs. Arbitrariness prevails. Postmodern life could be described as a state in which everything beyond our own personal biography seems vague, blurred, and somehow unreal. The world is full of signs and information, which stand for things that no one fully understands because they, too, turn out to be mere signs for other things.

The power of the Frontier series transcends the abstraction of their bricolage of urban signs. They engage the eye, and mind, with direct force. The signs and shapes on the canvases may be physically confused, yet there’s something about them that, against the odds, seems true rather than false. Looking at them is like stumbling across archaeological remains that could ultimately be made sense of, and perhaps even redeemed in some way.

Frontiers is a series of artistic fictions which has nothing to do with trendy takes on virtuality or the ephemeral. Even if we barely notice the streets and buildings around us in our daily lives, the bizarre urban Braille of Judah’s surfaces stop us in our tracks. These paintings are not connected to globalism, corporatism, or modes of consumption. They remind us instead of micro, rather than macro conditions, and of what the brilliant Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas refers to as “that eerie abstraction of the generic.î They also happen to be proof against the extraordinary findings of researchers at the Massacheusetts Institute of Technology who discovered that the detail of digital images is not retained in memories for more than fourteen days. The scenes in Frontiers – produced by questioning hands, rather than pixelated via software – are hard to shake off; they stick, they haunt.

Gerry Judah’s luminous urban crusts are the beginning of a provocative body of work – a series of big asks, without easy answers. Compelling and timely, Frontiers marks out a new genre of abstract expressionism that is absolutely not, as Peter Zumthor put it, mere signage for other things.

Jay Merrick writes on architecture and art for The Independent, and ArtReview magazine.