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Gerry Judah: Paintings

Michael Glover, 18 March 2009

When is a painting not exactly a painting? Gerry Judah’s paintings occupy an uneasily anxious zone mid–way between painting and sculpture. Given that their obsessive subject matter – and Gerry Judah is nothing if not obsessive – is the terrible aftermath of conflict, this uneasy occupation seems to rhyme with their meaning. They hang from the wall, but they are built out from it, weirdly, and in a way that, when we look at them, and peer down into them, as if with the eye of a bird or a drone, almost induces a sickening sense of vertigo. They seem to be clinging to the surface of the canvas as if by some miracle. They show us an entirely shattered zone of conflict, human habitations which have been pulverized almost out of existence. We recognise bits and piece of tottering, leaning, listing shapes. These were once fairly drab municipal buildings or apartment blocks. None of these structures was an object of beauty. Paradoxically, they seem to have gained a little more magnificence, a little more grandeur, in their extreme decrepitude, in the way in which they seem to be crying out to us for pity. Look to the left and to the right of these collapsing buildings, and you see that the surface of the painting is pitted with fragmentary shapes, scorings of lines, odd ribbings, some circular, others straight. Is this evidence of earlier human occupation? As you look, you dig in with the eye of the archaeologist, combing the surface for fragmentary evidence of what may once have been here. Paintings usually have a flat surface and traffic, often quite easily, in the nature of illusion. There is nothing easily illusory here. Everything is a bit betwixt and between.

Yes, everything is ruined and posthumous here; everything represents some terrible, settled aftermath of the destruction of normality. This desolation on an epic, if not a theatrical, scale. And yet there are no people here to testify to what seems to have happened. There is no smeary blood letting of any kind. Apartment blocks lean into each other, as if for support in their tribulations. Smashed aerials and satellite dishes hang awry. The buildings are often so close together, so hugger mugger, that we can often barely see between them, and sometimes when we do try, we peer down into shafts of near–darkness. Things look fossilized, fused, almost buried in the canvas. And these battered and bruised fragments of buildings have to stand in for the complete absence of any evidence of human suffering.

Judah works in two colours only, white and black. Most often white. Any other colour, you feel, would not be right for what he is endeavouring to do. Colour, variegated colour, is often a mighty distraction. It draws us off in different, and often quite serendipitous, directions. It seems to be playing many different tunes simultaneously. It introduces thoughts of the decorative. It invites us to single out, and then to separate, one thing from another, to play off this against that. It encourages different kinds of playfulness and levity.

Judah wants none of this. He strives for a certain undistracted wholeness of vision, a sharp, unrelieved, singular focus. So white enshrouds everything. It is the colour of Pompeian dust. It is the colour of ghostliness. It is the colour of a shroud. Yes, this white is enshrouding everything which is unspeakable, and it feels so eerie and hushed and set apart from us.

The paintings are of two shapes, rectangular and circular. The rectangle suggests the customary idea of the landscape. When we look at a rectangle, we fall into the idea of landscape – such is our cultural conditioning. With the circle it is quite different. With the circle, the eye finds it more difficult to come to rest. It has to be pinioned in some way, and Judah has pinioned one of these circular paintings by creating a formation of buildings in the shape of the symbol of the cross. We still see the same remnants of human habitation here, but they are aligned, symbolically, on a north–south, east–west axis. The atmosphere of this circular painting is quite different from that of the others. It seems to occupy a different kind of space. It feels, because of its shape, more globally marooned, more rootless, more islanded, more symbolic than actual, more iconic than pictorial.

All these paintings begin in model–making – in Gerry Judah’s studio in north London you can see the models lined up, made from foam board, all beautifully detailed, one behind another, a whole series of what look like rather dreary Eastern European – or perhaps Middle Eastern – apartment blocks. But this work is not about model–making. Model–making is merely its point of departure. After the models have been attached to the canvas, Gerry Judah then begins to destroy them – on the day I visited, he suddenly showed me how, with his clenched fist.

Yes, this is only the beginning. Then comes the real work – of adding plaster, paint, rubble, glazes until, having passed through the influence of Tapies, Rauchenberg and others, we begin to move much closer to the idea of the re–invented painting. Yes, this is, finally, as much what the work is concerned with: issues of texture, light, painted surface. But let us not forget the overwhelming sense of menace.