Gerry Judah sees destruction, and is fascinated by what he sees – the way we all were when the towers came down. His paintings have their origins in aerial photographs, taken from the internet, of ruined houses in Palestine. You can see the formation of these paintings on Judah’s website, a film recording his own personal story of civilization: he makes the models, fixes them to the canvas, and then trashes them with blunt instruments and fire, finally coating the mayhem in gesso, encasing his dreams of destruction for later generations. This acknowledgement of the abstract beauty of destruction and decay brings to mind the collages of Villeglé, the unmaking of our world by human hands, only here it is not people tearing strips from métro posters but men with bombers and demolition machinery.
The fact that these works are inspired by photos is revealing. There is calmness about them. War from a distance gives one the space for aesthetic contemplation. At close quarters it’s nasty. Other artists (I’m thinking of Paul Nash) have represented both positions. Distance saps our concern with the human element. Il Duce’s eldest son Vittorio Mussolini famously described his frustrated aesthetic expectations while bombing Ethiopia: I was always miserable when I failed to hit my target, but when I was dead on I was equally upset because the effects were so disappointing. I suppose I was thinking about American movies and was expecting one of those terrific explosions when everything goes sky-high. Bombing these thatched mud huts of the Ethiopians doesn’t give the slightest satisfaction.
Judah is rightly insistent on calling these works abstract paintings, and references Malevich. With the paintings viewed from a distance this may be a valid comparison. But Malevich has planes and figures that you can’t pin down, they slip and slide around. Get near to Judah’s works and the elements are specifically identifiable: load bearing walls, water tanks, aerials, and no effort can disassociate them from their architectural roots.
The destruction looks at first sight like a local tragedy visited by an alien enemy. But the sheer excess of twisty cables – nobody has that many televisions – and frantic messiness, starts to suggest a mechanism – like a watch – that has been opened and whoops! – too late, its guts have sprung out, irrecoverably. So the workings of architecture are a delicate ideal state, fool with it at your peril: sproing! And then you see that, after all, this is a pretty good buzz. The artist is known for his commercial work – much of which involves modelling – so these paintings could be seen as backing away from that, step by step, and asking: when does it stop being commercial and start being art? Whether Judah worries about this or not, a lot of his critics seem to, yet the answer is obvious. It leaves the commercial world once it ceases to have a commercial purpose – it is essentially useless, and therefore meets the first requirement for art. It is then up to the viewer to decide whether it meets the second requirement: is it desirable? I think it is.
What D.H. Lawrence said of his own age, shortly after the First War, seems equally applicable now: Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. This is Gerry Judah’s position. He manages to make something compelling of it.