Boys, do you recognise the signs?
By Neil Mulholland
"Be up to date, and distinguished at the same time. Painting is over. You might as well finish it off. Detourn. Long live painting..."
The gesture Asger Jorn speaks of here isn't iconoclastic, it's not simply a form of defacement or destruction, it is, rather, a playful and polymorphous reinvention of painting. Keith Farquhar’s Boy is 'up to date' in Jorn's sense in that it is '...in Colour. It is ‘distinguished’ by the pedigree of the image chosen and the painterly technique applied.
In both senses, Boy relates directly to Farquhar’s recent series of Nudes in Colour, cut out images of torsos that have been painted all-over in the informel style. The bodies are camouflaged by the paint and carefully amputated to resemble ‘distinguished’ classical ruins. They form something that resembles a non-repeating pattern, they are each different yet part of a harmonious sequence of disembodied bodies.
As paintings, Nudes in Colour perform a series of inversions, starting with a reversal of the conventional figure-ground relationship. To begin with, the human figure serves as a ground for the application of paint. Abstract skeins of colour are rendered 'figurative' by virtue of their readymade canvas. The paint stained figures are then photographed, printed and cut-out. While this removes the sensual qualities of the impasto, translating the coloured facture into information, the outcome serves to emphasise the sculptural qualities of the torsos. The paintings emerge from their frames, mount cardboard pedestals and share our space. Like Farquhar's earlier works in bleached denim and acrylic on Gore-tex, Nudes in Colour slip under the radar, they seem to be 'paintings' only by default of their genesis. What we see has metamorphosed into a new form of printed sculpture, the rapid prototype. And yet the transformation from painting to sculpture is purposefully unconvincing, illusionary at best. These flat-packed objects lack the haptic qualities of sculpture, they are little more than pigmented armatures, formations of their own support structure. Maybe its this quality, this performance with figure-ground, that makes them paintings after all?
The Boy images differ subtly as a series. In each work, the armature remains identical, a photocopy. The face isn't so much painted as 'coloured-in'. As paintings, they are another way of reducing the pictorial structure to its armature, to the skin and bones. They are more explicitly borderline-amateur than Nudes in Colour, more of a minor art. The tachisme pedigree we find in Nudes in Colour is substituted with the naïf of the face painter, decorative effects that neutralise the confident gestures of the practiced painter.
The U2 image is ‘distinguished’, a poster boy for post-punk authenticity. This effigy of male youth was cast in 1980 as different youth cults fought it out over the quintessence of boyhood: skin, punk, pale boy, ted, rocker, humanoid, Victorian imp, prep, goth... Seen in relation to U2's LP, this Boy was Ernest, not the pop androgen of BOY London, but a new angry young man. The image is greyscale not Technicolor, Walker Evans not Sherrie Levine, high street biker jacket not Viv Westwood, rock not new-wave. This striking black-and-white image wants to ‘keep it real', to be taken seriously as a political archive, as a document rather than a mere representation.
However, considered apart from U2's LP, the Boy image is markedly free of background noise. He floats in a white fog, his arms locked behind his head, his face expressionless, his hair of no particular style. He could be relaxed or afraid, ecstatic or depressed, sunbathing or under arrest. The frontality of the image acts as a psychological barrier. Meaning is, at once, given and taken away. The image seems unusually resistant to contextualisation. In terms of providing Boy with a symbolic context, the grey overcoats of Britain and Ireland were a local currency. The LP was originally a hit thanks to heavy rotation in gay clubs in America, and quickly gained a following that, perhaps, were not U2’s intended target audience.
Farquhar's additions to the U2 Boy image recall Asger Jorn's detourned painting, a moderne assemblage of a loaded image. They are ‘up to date’ - face painting in this form is a fad of recent years. The oil stick is blended and rubbed on with the fingers onto a photocopy of the U2 Boy, just as it would be to the face of a child, blending skein and skin. The face painting strips the U2 idol of its representational pretensions, it resists the instrumental imperative of the critical gesture , the tokenism of the political sign, whether it be willful war-child or unwitting homoerotic icon. His detour takes us via baby-time, a very different place from which to engage with the possibilities of images: 'I am Harry Potter, I am a dog, I am a clown, I am a skeleton.' Farquhar's Boy is liberated from his '80s borstal, from the pressure to make sense in a grown-up's world on grown-up terms. Each Boy is able to strive for its own singularity, each is a different encounter with the constructed worlds that kids occupy today.
The marvelousness of baby-time, of the becoming of grease-paint, circumvents some of the difficulties of representation. Contemporary witch trials and paedo-iconophopia aside, the problem of representation is a perennial one. An adult's image of a child will always differ from that produced by a child. How children perceive, picture and model the world is not something that can be adequately encompassed by adult's representations of children. Rather than attempt to make just another representation, to compete with U2’s cover star, Farquhar's traverses other possibilities.
To make a painting of a boy is very different from painting a boy's face. Face painting is another way of inverting the hierarchy of figure and ground, child and child-image. It doesn't aspire to be a representation, it’s a noise rather than signal, a supplement, roughhewn, just ‘colouring-in.’ Face painting seems to hedge the anxiety that many adults have with representations of children, it is pursued enthusiastically as a painterly process for its own sake. Perhaps this is because face painting is not an image of, not a representation, not something that can be so easily possessed, reproduced, controlled, manipulated, detourned... Face painters do not assume that their images need to be meaningful or prosthetic, nor do their juvenile canvases.
Of course, as a practice, face painting has associations of its own: tribalism, excess, transgression and transfiguration. The very act, we might argue, is symbolic, anti-modern, ritualistic, nostalgie de la boue. It seems to bode well with a Romantic infatuation with childhood innocence, with images of the feral-boy and the noble savage. Its popularity today is bound up with its anti-modern qualities, its a form of shop-bought primitivism, a dressing-up box for an aspiring Lord of the Flies. In this sense, certainly, we might think of face painting as a prosthetic, a mediator of our beliefs and memories, a manifestation of the exuberance of life.
However, this is still to acknowledge that face painting's representational value today lies not in considering it as a contingent object, but as an action, as an allegory of painting per se. In a time in which painting’s materiality, the visceral qualities that made painting seem unique and vital, are substituted for mere data, face painting is a technique that keeps painting-as-event alive. The fecund, liturgical, playful qualities of Farquhar’s acts of face painting jar with the persistent stoicism of the countenance that belies these works, a face that stares back unflinchingly. The steady features appear excessive, an image that refuses to be reduced to its original context, that is not mired in the details of its past.
As an image, Boy summons Farquhar’s pester-power, exploits the paternal eagerness to please, inviting ever-more mischievous and prodigal superimpositions. Yet somehow this boy manages to frustrate changing fads. Like Achilles, he seems impervious. There is a perversity in Farquhar’s transformation of a luscious, vivacious painterly practice into a permanent icon, yet an inevitability that even this most fertile and profuse act of painting cannot wipe a smile onto, or off of, this boy’s face.