It is February 2008 and the London-based artist Keith Coventry (b. 1958) is talking to me about "Anaesthesia as Aesthetic," his inaugural exhibition at the prestigious Haunch of Venison Gallery in Zürich, which goes on view Mar. 7-Apr. 12, 2008.
Since appearing in the "Sensation" exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997, Coventry has become celebrated for his cerebral oil paintings, typically featuring recognizable images that neverthess draw attention to their own status as painted representations. In sculptures and pictorial works made with textiles and cloth, as well as in his paintings -- typically presented framed and behind glass -- Coventry embeds contemporary social meaning within classic forms of fine art.
He has painted maps of housing estates in the form of Russian Suprematism, and rendered the minimalist British cucumber tea sandwich in white paint, as if it were kin to a White on White by Kasimir Malevich or Robert Ryman’s somber Minimalist formalism. He has rendered Raoul Dufy’s lighthearted Riviera views in thick black impasto, and done hunting scenes from Alfred Munnings in white. He has cast a vandalized shop front in bronze and presented it in a gallery, and made a plastic multiple of an asthma inhaler that doubles as a crack pipe.
Coventry has had several important exhibitions in the last few years, most recently including a show titled "Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring" at the Camden Arts Centre, which closed in February 2008. He had a significant retrospective at the Tramway Gallery in Glasgow in 2007, and had a show of "textile works" (depicting faceless crowds of beautiful people) at Julius Werner in Berlin in the same year.
In 2006 Coventry’s solo exhibition at the Fine Arts Society in London received a certain amount of notoriety after collector David Roberts, with characteristic zeal, purchased the show in its entirety before it even opened. The Tate has gotten into the act as well, acquiring four works in the last 18 months.
"Anaesthesia as Aesthetic" presents paintings from four different series. The black "Crack Pipe" paintings, done in Coventry’s trademark robust impasto style, were made in 2001 and have never been exhibited before. The second set of works is from the "Dufy" series, which was first exhibited at Kenny Schachter’s Rove gallery in London in 2004. Whereas Raoul Dufy limned a world of light and continuous frivolity, regardless of contemporary political events, Coventry’s glutinous oil surfaces absorb the light and suggest a dark underside to everyday events.
The third series, which Coventry calls the "Broken Window" paintings, was made in 2007, and includes flat abstracted oil renderings of shattered glass panes of varying complexity. The most recent group, "Anaesthesia as Aesthetic" (2008), is a striking departure for the artist. Its large, meticulously painted, intricately decorated interiors are depicted in an uncomfortably warm and limited color scheme.
Simon Todd: How did the color scheme for "Anaesthesia as Aesthetic" develop?
Keith Coventry: It comes from an illustration in a book by John Gage from the 1920s depicting a hospital ward for shellshock victims from the First World War. Four colors (sunshine yellow, primrose yellow, firmament blue, spring green) were chosen to soothe the nerves of damaged soldiers, and though the hospital had no actual scientific proof that these colors assist in recuperation, it continued with them for a number of years. So I like the idea of making a painting that can soothe you, rather than one that is sensational, surprising or shocking.
ST: Is it like a cathartic process?
KC: The pleasure is in the sheer boredom or dullness of it. Something to come back to, look at and provide a calming experience.
ST: It should be an interesting contrast, what with one gallery space devoted to a civilizing experience and the next filled with black paintings of crack pipes.
KC: I don’t really see colors having a calming effect. Quite the contrary, being put into a room painted in the shellshock colors would be very disturbing. Maybe you have to be ill to get the benefit. If you are well, the colors make you ill. It should look good.
ST: And the black "Dufy" paintings, will you hang them on bright red walls like you did at Rove in 2004?
KC: The black and white of the paintings on the red wall suggest the typography of the Russian Revolution as well as the symbolism of National Socialist banners. The subjects of Dufy’s paintings in Vichy France couldn’t have been further from these two historic events. Dufy seems cocooned in a world of luxury, leisure and comfort. Similar to Giorgio Morandi’s single-minded obsession with bottles on tables during the Fascist period in Italy.
ST: Where do the abstracted interiors of the "Anaesthesia as Aesthetic" come from?
KC: The interiors are photographs of the homes of various Parisian collectors who took part in an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in 1992. The catalogue (Passion Privées by Suzanne Page) was given to me by Karsten Schubert and after flicking through it a few times, I put it aside for 14 or 15 years. I picked the catalogue up while reading about the shellshock wards and the two married together to form the concept for the paintings.
The series could be seen as a critique or an ironic poke at art collectors, who require total control of their environments in the things that they collect to provide themselves with a secure base. This introduction of color over their collection is like a secondary blanket of security.
The "Anaesthesia as Aesthetic" paintings have a very simple technique -- an old-style method of painting flat shapes with flat areas of color. Whereas current practice tends to become ever more complex technically and there is a lot of skill exhibited today, these works are almost like a throwback to a time when skill wasn’t the paramount thing.
ST: But at the same time you make a point of doing everything yourself. Your works are made solely by you, and nothing is farmed out.
KC: The idea is to be responsible for all aspects of the making of the object. So everything from the very beginning to the final waxing of the frame and attachment of the fittings to hang the picture are done by me.
ST: The frame is important to you -- it’s an integral part of the art object.
KC: Yes, that’s right, whenever a work is photographed the frame has to be included, because it adds an extra piece of meaning to it. Duchamp said something like "a title is a color on the palette" and for me the frame is another color on the palette. Mario Testino wanted to buy one of the white-on-white paintings but he wanted it removed from the frame, and I just said that it’s not for sale. You can’t do that. And Charles Saatchi wanted to have the title of a white-on-white painting inscribed on a brass plaque and then put the plaque on the linen mount inside the painting, but I said that if he did that then it would be his painting and no longer one of mine [this was for the "Sensation" exhibition in 1997].
ST: Did he give you a specific reason for the plaque?
KC: He just wanted to help people understand what the painting was about. He thought they might miss it, if they looked at this white painting and there wasn’t a title right there on the work. He probably thought he was being quite tasteful, to have a brass plaque on a linen mount inscribed with "Sir Norman Reid explains modern art to the Queen," and they phoned up from the gallery to ask if that was OK to put it on the linen mount. We said no, of course.
ST: The "Broken Window" paintings remind me of the simple hollow constructions of the Vandalized Benches sculpture you exhibited back in 2005 or perhaps the bronze Looted Shop Front from 1997. Why does urban decay continue to be such a recurring image in your work?
KC: There is a violent action that has taken place, someone has vandalized that bench or that window, you see the result of it but there is a silence in the work as well. An action has been carried out.
The "Broken Window" paintings come from a High Street decorating shop where in the ‘80s there was a fashion for putting strips of lead on windows, making plain glass look like cottage windows. With these strips of lead you were given a pattern that you stuck on the window on the inside and followed it with the strips of lead on the other side. I remember thinking how similar it looked to an abstract painting, a Kenneth Martin or something, a British abstraction from the ‘50s. Then I just thought about the places where people would attempt to make their home more cottage-like or chintzy, these were often in quite deprived areas. The scale changes in the paintings, which resemble a Vorticist painting that is all about notions of energy, movement and destruction.
ST: On the flipside, you also had the "White" series at the Fine Arts Society in London in 2006, which appears to tackle upper social strata, depicting members of the aristocracy and celebrities in scenes that seem to come right out of the society pages.
KC: I think the "White on White" paintings were just about depicting things that made up, in a kind of picture-postcard way, images that were put out to the rest of the world about England and how some of these things were disappearing and various traditions were being lost. And the spectacle and color that was associated with them was also being lost. They were not actually being replaced with anything as elegant. Instead we have an impoverishment of modern life. The surfaces themselves look like a fossilization of the subject.
ST: So the white represents a kind of draining away of life. On the other hand, the strong black impasto in your crack pipe paintings seems rather unyielding, almost a homage to drug use.
KC: I have a sense that Morandi spent a lifetime in a few rooms ignoring the big events in the world while focusing on small arrangements of bottles. I thought there was an analogy with the "crack addict," who also has no concern with what is happening in the world other than where his or her next hit is coming from. The paintings are a dark version of Morandi’s.
ST: You’ve abandoned your monochrome impasto technique for the "Anaesthesia as Aesthetic" paintings.
KC: It seems that with "Anaesthesia as Aesthetic," like several earlier series, there is a kind of sign-painters’ esthetic at work, with one edge of an area of color butting up directly against another. So I would say within my painting there are two styles. One is the gestural brushstrokes, the impasto, and the other is linear. But even within the "sign paintings," the paint is not flat and has active brush strokes; a working of the surface, a texture, an impasto -- it is all the same to me, the paint is usually the same buttery consistency in any case.
ST: What’s next after the Zürich show?
KC: I am currently working on a series of paintings that deal with prostitution. They involve, through the color of the countries of Eastern Europe, the notion of a white slavery in Britain. I believe that London is prostitution capital of the world, in the sense that more prostitution goes on here than anywhere else in the world. More money is made from it.
ST: And your plans for the "Prostitute" paintings?
KC: A chain of banners within a paint surface, with each painting representing a different country with colors based on the flags of that country. At the same time, there will be some brown paintings for which I use Picasso’s studies of Demoiselles d’Avignon as a reference point. According to social anthropologists, in the early 20th century everyone thought that prostitution resulted in physical degradation. There is this comment by an anthropologist that describes a prostitute’s nose as resembling a quarter of Brie. There is a strange idea that although the prostitutes don’t suffer, they become ugly and when they get to a certain age they fall apart.
ST: Do you think that is a reference to syphilis?
KC: A 19th-century researcher, Dr. Pauline Tarnowsky, documented the facial anomalies of prostitutes with photographs, and studied what she called atavistic regression as a kind of fall down the evolutionary ladder. This link between beauty and proportion is also seen, in reverse, in our obsession with supermodels. Prostitution supposedly correlates with a kind of asymmetry or prognathism, a disproportion of the jawbones.
So these brown paintings will resemble the studies that Picasso did. They are going to be like the "Dufy" paintings, but brown. I will probably start by painting one woman’s face and then painting another woman’s face on top of that and another on top of that and another on top of that. So that at the end it is not one woman; it is almost as if the painting becomes a mask for all women, which is a Lacanian idea.
ST: Like a prostitute’s client’s list?
KC: Yes, all crushed together. Lacan thinks that men don’t see women, all they see is the mask of sexuality, so they can’t see the individual. With these pictures, by painting one woman and then another woman, leaving bits of one and the other here and there, it creates this non-individual onto whom anyone can project whatever they want.
SIMON TODD is a consultant for Artnet in London.