Unlike war or revolution or virgin birth, an economic recession makes a poor subject for art. To portray its wider consequences on the world is banal; to attempt to unravel its causes is simply too difficult. The recessions of today are mired in such infernally difficult causal chains – involving financial instruments that few people understand – that art is easily rendered speechless. All the artist can do is rant, and the rant is the opposite of what great art should aspire to.
Mat Collishaw, walking me around his new exhibition at the Blain Southern gallery in central London, agrees. “It is a big mistake to make work that is moralistic or judgmental,” he says. “It is just uninteresting. You have to look for a way in.”
Collishaw is what we used to call a Young British Artist but must now refer to as a former member of that movement who – wouldn’t you know it – has crept into middle age. His new exhibition is called This is not an Exit, which is the last line of Bret Easton Ellis’s scabrous novel of the early 1990s, American Psycho. The book and the show have a theme in common: everyone is looking for a way out when the going gets tough. But that, of course, is when you see nothing but alluring dead ends.
Collishaw came across his subject in stages. He had been sitting in a hotel room in a small town in France, thinking about an original way to produce art that responds to our current economic predicament, when he was struck by a pain in his side. “A massive amount of pain,” he says neutrally. “And I don’t speak French.”
The international language for trauma resolution made good: he had acute appendicitis and needed immediate hospitalisation and surgery. It all went well. While recuperating, he came across some books of medieval art in a local library. “I was studying all this very sophisticated drapery, and got lost in the folds of the tablecloths, that were almost like abstraction.”
A couple of days later, he had another small epiphany, while fiddling with his train ticket on his journey home. “I was folding it absent-mindedly, and the sun hit it, and it suddenly looked like a cocaine wrap, this tawdry little thing; I was thinking that this was the most debased a small piece of paper could be. And then I wondered, if I could give that piece of paper the attention and dignity of those medieval folds, it could be interesting.”
The result is the group of large-scale oil paintings that stand before us, formal grids in subtle tonalities, almost abstract, but actually magnified depictions of pieces of paper that have been folded and then unfolded, and which bear traces of the insidious white powder that has come to symbolise the decadent excesses of an over-moneyed society spinning out of control. In another room, the pieces of paper are cut out of lifestyle magazines, throwing random images of consumer luxury into the mix.
Collishaw, dark, deep-voiced and barrel-chested, says he had been meaning to work with oils for a long time. He hadn’t touched them since leaving London’s Goldsmiths College in the late 1980s and diving into the world of conceptual art, along with soon-to-be luminaries such as Damien Hirst. His subsequent work, at the same time sumptuous and shocking, and frequently macabre, mainly used photography and video to put its point across: that there could be improbable beauty in ugly themes.
Returning to oil has been joyful, yet intimidating too. “You are responding to that whole tradition, you are adding an increment to its history – are you up to it?” he says. “You have that moment in front of the blank canvas or sketchbook, you put the pencil on it, the shadow falls across it, and you are in a metaphysical zone, putting yourself against the void and against the whole history of painting, when you make that first mark.”
There are critics who think that Collishaw’s time has finally come, as he makes the uneasy transition from young conceptual shock artist to a middle-aged man studying the drapes of medieval cloths. Put more crudely, it may just be that artistic fashion is turning stealthily back towards the “proper” skills of draughtsmanship.
“Times are changing,” concedes Collishaw, who nevertheless wants to bring all aspects of his art together. “I have always wanted to be a conceptual artist who does things in a way that seduces people, using visual effects to bring them in.”
He points to the flat surfaces of the paintings. “It is an illusionistic game, quite similar to what happens when you are on drugs. With drugs like cocaine, you feel you have greater confidence, more stamina. But it is an illusion. There is always a pay-off.” There is, as he says, no exit. He mentions Caspar David Friedrich, another painter whose subjects confronted the abyss. “It is another common theme in the history of painting,” he says. “Looking at nothingness.”
‘This is not an Exit’, Blain Southern Gallery, February 14-March 30, www.blainsouthern.com