Contemporary artist Gerry Judah challenges the boundaries between painting and sculpture. His paintings are inspired by images of war zones—scenes from Iraq, the Lebanon, Palestine and Afghanistan – and born of Baghdadi grandparents, the title for this new series, Motherlands, reflects his sense of roots. Judah’s blanket ‘white’ and ‘blackouts’ have a levelling effect which enable him to cross cultural, political and religious divides. Ostensibly the artist is engaged with the detritus, the aftermath of conflict, but his paintings relate as much to an angry planet as they do to world politics. It is hard to engage with the work and not be reminded of the tsunami in Asia, the hurricane that submerged New Orleans, or a melting polar cap. Whether these scenes are a result of war or natural disaster, they raise existential questions. We are reminded of our vulnerability, our place in existence.

Following through from Frontiers (2005) and Angels (2006), Motherlands reflects the scenes that we witness daily as reported by the media. Twisted steel cabling amid the rubble of concrete where once stood homes and communities creates an abstracted and disturbing aesthetic. On close inspection one can pick out clearly the remnants of individual homes—walls are torn, staircases ripped out—but as one steps back the image dissolves into abstraction and a stillness ripples across the canvas. We are witness to a ‘ceasefire’; a moment frozen in time where there are neither survivors nor people left to fight.

Judah creates his landscapes from scores of miniature buildings, immaculately constructed from foam board, complete with solar panels, water towers and staircases, which he systematically destroys after fixing them onto canvas. The accumulated ‘rubble’, and the sea of empty white canvas on which it floats, is lacquered with layers of acrylic gesso to create ‘white on white’ abstract paintings. The presence of what has been removed is palpable. The ‘presence of absence’ reminds us of the house spirits of Rachel Whiteread worked into soft plaster, and the sense of abstracted embodiment created by Robert Ryman.

Judah’s work is full of contradictions, both conceptually and visually. He creates abstracted figurative paintings that are sculptural. Shadow and light created by the relief work are played out across the canvas as if it were a lunar landscape. Judah’s paintings have an unearthly quality—an ephemeral feel that he weaves into a stark reality. The purity and silence of the white, like virgin snow, is poignant given the darkness of the subject matter. He manages to create paintings that are both disturbing and beautiful.

Gerry Judah is an artist for whom absence – in the sense of what was once there but is there no longer – is a generator for something positive. A ruin, the remains of signage which indicate a long-closed enterprise, an empty room . . . all prompt in Judah a heavy sense of what ought to be there, or could be there. His is not a mourning for what is past, and neither is it a sentimental position; instead, it is a reaching out towards what might have been the present. In Judah’s work, absence is depicted so strongly that it begins to make what is actually there almost a secondary consideration. Judah creates circular, self-reflexive arguments which chase themselves through layers of metaphor and reach no conclusion other than the fact that a question ought to be asked.

Judah’s work Angels (2006), a series of “paintings” which encroach upon the realm of relief and sculpture, depict buildings and settlements which have been subjected to sudden, apocalyptic attack. There is no suggestion of gradual decay; buildings have, instead, been violently stripped of both purpose and inhabitants. The imagery is that of war or the vagaries of nature, and human habitation is reduced to one of texture, a desolate and oddly picturesque event which interrupts an otherwise flat and absurdly featureless landscape. These are mesmerizing objects, spanning one’s understanding of what is real and unreal. These depictions of modern ruins, the obliteration of the ordinary and unremarkable, contain enough satellite dishes and water tanks to suggest, say, the wreckage of very real, bulldozer-led incursions; but the amount of cabling stretched between these broken buildings, indicative of electricity and telephony, is too contrived and subjective a composition to be mistaken for faithful reproduction. Instead, the cabling provides a gossamer-like directionality to what, at some distance, appears to be a delicate affair.

This work has been boiling away since the 1970s, when Judah graduated from Goldsmith’s College with a degree in fine art. It is a dangerous cliché to record the influences which bear upon the work of artists, as far too often these influences are either contrived or post-rationalized, but Judah had already developed a sensitivity to semi-ruinous buildings which permitted passers-by a glimpse into what were once private worlds. The physical remains (pictures hanging on walls, doorways opening onto spaces that are no longer there, fireplaces stranded high above the streetscape) became to Judah manifestations of stories, remnants of memory which could either be discovered or imagined. And then, in the 1980s, he was forced to vacate a studio in London’s Islington; the studio was demolished and, for a while, an interior wall covered in Judah’s notes and drawings was exposed to public view. “I was looking at myself,” he says.

To Judah, a man who challenges people to overlay artworks with their own prejudices and imaginings, buildings tell us little on their own. “What makes a building’s voice is not what it tells you, it’s what you can tell from it. You project, and you’ve got to make room for that.” The distinction is a crucial one. To Judah, a visitor is never an observer of a building, submitting to its signals and signs; visitors are, instead, participants in the life of a building and they have to do a little work if they are to “hear” anything at all. Brecht-like, Judah expects us to engage in an active sort of listening, one that goes beyond mere hearing. And that listening is one which is loaded with the weight of people’s personal and collective memory. Moreover, Judah describes a way of listening that must be handled responsibly, otherwise one might encounter only what one expects to hear.

Judah has conducted a number of studies of Nazi concentration camps, notably as research for the scale model model of Auschwitz-Birkenau he created for the Imperial War Museum in 2000, and he has therefore spent a considerable amount of time measuring, looking, listening and “feeling” his way through these emotionally-charged spaces. To Judah, however, these places do not speak powerfully; simply being present at the location of the Holocaust provides no experiential trace of the event itself. After his visits, he wrote the following: “While I expected to be overwhelmed with horror, I was simply numbed. There is little resonance of evil in what has been left behind. The place was not designed to express its purpose – like a church or a bank – but, on the contrary, to conceal it. The scatter of shoddy buildings that survive does not make a setting for extreme evil. If you passed the place you probably wouldn’t notice it. Even the gatehouse, one of the icons of 20th century terror, is a rather small utilitarian brick building.”

“I felt numb – but not unmoved,” says Judah, who was, however, most emotional in the empty synagogues of Krakow; where there should have bustle, and noise, and life, there was quiet. “This lack of voices, this absence, was very profound.”

Judah’s work is an exploration of the chain reaction of metaphor (“Everything is a metaphor for something else.”) and nothing represents itself. Absence suggests presence, and what is present is open to interpretation. Judah’s is an enquiry into the possibilities of ambiguity. His paintings in the Angels series present ruined spaces as textures and images are not named. He has been accused of beautifying war, especially with regard to his similar collection Frontiers (2005), which tackled similar ground but was more overtly inspired by the remnants of conflict; there is something in this, but any beauty in these works is purely the invention of the spectator. The paintings in Angels are stripped of colour and humanity; they are either black or white. If there is a predetermined viewpoint at all, it is one of a spy-plane or a Google Earth depiction and, as such, these objects are open to interpretation; they beg meaning to be applied to them.

In 1830 Sir John Soane commissioned Joseph Gandy to paint an image of the Bank of England (one of Soane’s masterpieces) as a ruin. The image is an ambiguous one – it is simultaneously a Romantic vision of London as the future Rome (where people may come to wonder at the achievements of a lost civilization) and a technical drawing, illustrating the spatial arrangements and construction of the building. Like an architectural model, this image shows more clearly than any set of plans and sections how this building actually worked. It is both poetry and technical information. Judah’s Angels have much the same ambiguity. They do not show what ruins look like – they show, instead, how one might imagine ruins. Gandy does the same thing – he depicts walls that are evidently strong enough to withstand calamity, but he also populates the site with arches of unlikely slenderness. It is as if the site has been unpicked, not ravaged, and it is difficult to know quite how to respond. This is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Angels – these sites, too, have been unpicked, and it was a selective havoc which befell these places. Load-bearing walls have been swept away, but satellite dishes remain.

Like absurd buildings which have lost their facades, leaving doors and wallpaper and plumbing hanging in mid-air; like the Holocaust sites; Judah’s Angels are diagrams, emblems, of a state. And what is that state? What exactly are these places? What is their status, these non-buildings? What do they want and what do they want us to think of them? They stare blankly and say nothing. One has to work very hard to find a response and apply a meaning.