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|Andrew Litten CV info|
|text for ID SMEAR exhibition 2012|
Almost without exception, the paintings in this selection of ‘ID Smear’ depict single isolated figures rather than bodies intertwined. Perhaps revealingly, two figures do appear - one as a shadowy trace of the other - in the predominantly black painting, Shadow. Carrying an awareness that our most complex interior states can be traced back to bodily links and to the severance of such links, Andrew Litten seeks to assuage feelings of separateness through attachment. In this exhibition he explores attachment in two ways: through connections housed within an individual self, and through the visceral and dependent relationship that exists between an artist and their artwork.
Interestingly, in both the paintings Woman With Bird and Boy Thinking of Flight, a framed picture hanging on the wall accompanies the portrait. By including an artwork within an artwork, Litten makes clear his interest in the construction of a picture. Philosophically, the question of what it means to be an artwork, initially raised at the turn of the twentieth century, is highlighted here once more. By using boxes, envelopes, old board and metal plates in place of canvas, Litten draws our attention to the fact that even when subverted, art is a language providing an element of external structure necessary to expose the internal chaos and disorder of emotions. Impressively, at times, Litten needs little more than a few brush strokes to animate the inner workings of complex psychic life. This is the case for two of his paintings on envelopes, Without Purpose and Being Nowhere; the figure in the latter, along with that in Alcohol Now, despite their sparseness of representation, look remarkably like Litten himself. Through the works’ titles the artist reveals an interest in existentialism and in the notion that philosophical reflection begins with everyday human activity. Engulfed in darkly painted backgrounds, Litten’s figures, like those of Alberto Giacometti before him, unsettle the viewer, look outwards and forcefully ask the question, what does it mean to be a lone body existing in a space?
The blackness of many of the works in ‘ID Smear’ reminds me of the medieval belief that the cause of melancholy stems from an imbalance of humours in the body, and in particular, from an overwhelming presence of black bile. In his acute understanding that our emotional lives and physical existences are inextricably linked, Litten shares more in common with earlier ancient and medieval ways of considering the body rather than with classical modes of figure representation. As is pointed towards in the title of the exhibition, ‘ID Smear’, personhood for Litten is best understood via physical bodily functions over which we have little or no control. Similar to the American artist Kiki Smith, Litten uses the suggestion of physical pain and bodily leakage as revelatory of psychic torment. The paintings Some Pissing Old Codger, Lonely Wank and Instructor depict bodies seeping urine and semen, and shedding pubic hair. This recurring theme of bodily leakage suggests physical fragility, as well as serving as an ongoing reminder that we are emotional beings -- our minds and hearts are as vulnerable as our bodies, and although we try to contain our feelings, they often spill out all around. Whilst the gesture of wanking makes clear that some of Litten’s figures are intended as male, in general his naked fleshly models appear sexless, which is not to say that sex is unimportant here. At the same time as balancing male-female duality, Litten makes attempts to dissolve it: the blood red – often used as background colour - could equally reference a woman’s menstruation as it does the spillage of a man’s blood in war.
Litten’s work on boxes exemplifies the idea that our bodies are imperfect containers tending to leak outwards beyond our control. The traditional comforting notion that a box keeps its contents safe within is completely dismantled; instead, the box is flattened to become totally exposed. In the same way, the figures painted onto these boxes appear totally at the mercy of the viewer’s eyes, even to the degree that I feel my line of sight transforming into arrows that pierce the naked skin. It is as though making art for Litten is akin to a painful addiction; he must do it in order to alleviate pains of isolation. But, in doing so, he creates a new attacker, in this case, the viewer. In one of the paintings done on a blood red ground, there is a figure with arms open wide – this is St. Sebastian totally unprotected before the first arrow strikes. Similarly, in Walk Out, the figure appears to creep away from safety and towards danger; perhaps he emerges from a cave to confront strange and intrusive more ‘civilised’ peoples, perhaps he unwittingly steps into the front line of fire, or perhaps the painting records the first steps taken towards freedom that have come too late after the damage inflicted by a concentration camp or solitary confinement. This is the genius of Andrew Litten, that with little more than a cardboard box, a one colour background and a single, minimally painted figure, his work unleashes the imagination and sets the mind raging to somehow understand the boundless complexity of human existence.