Davide Ferri on Damien Meade
A problem: because I can't stop looking at them, I would like to describe the things that Damien Meade paints (these are busts, heads, figures that cannot be assimilated to a specific subject, or simply abstract compositions).
And if I'm referring to the things he paints, what things am I talking about? Of the subjects of his paintings or, more broadly, of the paintings themselves, that is, of paintings that are one with the thingness of their subjects?
If, for example, I call the things that are the basis of each painting simply "sculptures", I should point out that these are sculptures that have a temporary, interstitial life, lasting between one painting and another. Which are modeled in clay, but the clay is never fired so that each object can become something else: another form for a new painting.
Talking about Meade's work means dwelling on something that no longer exists, or that ceased to exist before the painting began: it is only thanks to a series of photographic shots that the object was able to become the subject of the painting.
Sometimes you forget about this subject, the referent. This is what happens in front of abstract paintings (that is, which portray completely abstract and two-dimensional clay compositions) such as those in this exhibition: the memory of something that has existed for a few hours, somewhere - in a studio that you have never visited - emerges in a discontinuous form.
Then you ask yourself: to whom does that tactile and contrasting surface really belong, to the painting or object represented? And what happens to an object when it becomes the subject of a painting?
The heads, the busts that Meade paints from time to time - and which in this exhibition are combined with paintings with abstract surfaces as a reminder us that surface leads directly to face (H. Belting) – they instead make us think of portraits and funerary masks (J. von Schlosser) but in portraits to which the painting has given a last residue of vitality, therefore to forms whose material life is prolonged (through photography) in the painting. It is because of those spots, those slightly breathless brushstrokes of colors that can emphasize the contours of a mouth, a nose, or even the eyes, but without giving them a glance.
Meade's figures have faces without gaze (this is why they are disturbing, because the eye conceals something disturbing within itself that comes to light just when the gaze is not there), and they escape a reciprocal relationship with the observer. .
Furthermore, these gazeless heads refer (always intermittently, because the observer never stops looking for a face in them) to their presence as "things", that is, to the idea that the painting we are looking at is a portrait, but the portrait of an object, therefore a still life, as if two traditional genres of painting collapsed into each other.
And that's the point. Meade's paintings seem to summarize aspects that are not fully assimilable and sometimes contradictory: the coexistence of the different languages of painting, sculpture and photography; a painting that continually evokes the ephemeral materiality of sculpture; the classical genres; the figure and abstraction. His paintings exist in the balance between two materialities - that of the picture as an object and that of the thing represented - which recall and re-launch each other.
Davide Ferri, 2018.
Davide Ferri is an Italian writer and curator based in Rome. This is a translation of an original Italian text produced to accompany Damien Meade's solo exhibition at CAR DRDE Gallery, Bologna, in September 2018.
Olivia Fletcher on Damien Meade
Damien Meade’s paintings begin as mud, but live on as creatures of dirt. Minerals suspended in water are made compact—first by time, then the artist’s hand—and transform into something that Meade cannot, or at least does not want to name. Paint shifts onto linen panels like dried-up play doh curling at its edges, creating what looks like hair, pairs of lips or the surface of skin, perhaps. In an unusual twist of tradition, this clay will never see the inside of a furnace. Instead, it stays wet and, once he is through, will be crushed and churned into the shape of Meade’s next model. These faces are consumed by an assumed role—as though, each portrait is actually an actor’s headshot auditioning for a play called ‘High Art’—so much so, that they have become indifferent to the eye that is beholding them. Mark, though, there is nothing theatrical about mud—it sits, covers up, and cooks while basking in the sun. There is a push and pull, a child’s gentle yet commanding tug, at the artificiality of this performance being in opposition to but also dependent on the most natural medium imaginable: mud.
Muddy substances are domesticated in England only insofar as some people will in their viscous depths find treasure to drag home with them. Unlike ceramic spoons or bowls, Meade’s paintings are uncooked and you wouldn’t want nor expect to be cooking with them. His painted depictions of sinuous clay remind us of conventions in art and how they relate to the human body: you can look but please don’t touch. More than this, clay and oil are irrigated from earth and the texture of Meade’s work is telling of its composite parts—not usually seen indoors, let alone someone’s house. This is nature in a threatening guise as there is a lurky danger that these things might spill over, make mess, and ruin cleanliness. Kept in a premature phase, these paintings of sculptures discuss ugliness as the writer Mark Cousins has tried to define it, by bringing the imperfect or the slightly confused to the fore. Like dirt, Meade’s sculptures are acceptable when kept at a distance; different from Walter de Maria’s earthiness, for example, because the paint holds its dirt under a layer of oil and refuses to release it into the atmosphere.
In a periodical study of London and its inhabitants, the Victorian journalist William Mayhew wrote about ‘Mudlarks’: people, often children, known for walking along the Thames searching for desirable objects lost at sea and hidden in the marshy ground. Mudlarks were antisocial figures who wore ‘tattered indescribable things’, rarely speaking as they sifted through the stinking beach. Similar to Meade’s rude friends, they were inattentive to the eyes that watched them. The mudlark kept his or her gaze to the floor and, because of a preoccupation with finding something, was known as a mysterious scavenger. That’s not to say that they were unobtrusive people. Mayhew wrote an extended narrative on the mudlark including one interview with ‘an Irish Lad of about thirteen years old’, as though a description of the typical everyday routine of a mudlark could provide some insight into this soggy lifestyle. Obsessed with looking down, the young mudlark is industrious on a temporary concourse and will be periodically interrupted by the coming and going of tides, boats and drunken parents. Though not strictly outlawed, mudlarks were ‘generally good swimmers’, prepared to flee at any moment and on the literal edge of society: the shoreline. An unsightly lot, these loiterers were apparently ‘covered in vermin’ and barred from public houses and coffee shops. The mudlark dismissed the city by rejecting the eyes that were, as Mayhew’s writing affirms, watching on with curiosity. Leaving footprints as payment, the mudlark would uncover odd but valuable things including iron fragments, bits of rope and smoking pipes: a type of mining but for mislaid, forgotten things. We can imagine a mudlark walking across one of Meade’s linen panels: an ornate stain, a footprint, mud in the shape of a school matron’s bust.
Instead of searching for something material, Meade’s portraits explore what it is to falsify or attain stature through art. A painting by Damien Meade brings out the baseness of a much- thumbed piece of clay, producing the outline of a hand that gestures towards a body that is invariably jettisoned. Each one is made of dirt, matter out of place, and is dirty because of its visual fallibility rather than any substantial qualities.
Weight compresses, moves and bends things— originally, soil—out of shape. Both a tablet and a footprint, the horizontal steps into the vertical apparition of a portrait. His paintings of clay portray a cuneiform script—asking to be read—about contact, mark-making, things congealing or being fired but also, crudeness.
The recycled material is a reminder of decomposition, a different type of shape shifting, beginnings and ends.
Fitting, then, to see these paintings in Deptford, a deep ford, where the banks of the river swallow up and moan against human feet and their activity.
The shore, like any passage, is both entrance and exit wing.
Olivia Fletcher, 2018.
Olivia Fletcher is a writer based in London. This text was produced to accompany Damien Meade's solo exhibition at Peter von Kant Gallery in March 2018.
Damien Meade by John Chilver
London’s Ridley Road market is grubby, trash-strewn, restless and not very English. African grocers and Jewish bagel bakers rub along with the expanding tentacles of East End hipster sociability. Perched above it is the studio where Damien Meade has spent the last three years patiently composing a vision. A singular vision.
For a while, Meade’s paintings have promised a lot. But they have gained in intensity over the last two years. If you had to describe the works in shorthand to someone who hadn’t seen them you might say they’re like mannequin heads. That would be half right and all wrong. If you imagine surrealist mannequins (something like the ones in Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Hans Bellmer etc), then Meade’s images are at a remove. His paintings originate with models. Not “life models”. More like still-life models, or to use the French term that is especially evocative for Meade’s approach, nature morte – dead nature. Meade might begin with a mannequin bust, consisting of head and shoulders only. He will work on the head, adding tape and clay and fabric. His fingers will knead and gouge and mould the clay. At some point he will arrive at a sculptural image that is also a raw material fact. He will photograph the finished model over and over from a thousand angles until he finds one that holds his gaze. Then with the selected photograph as the mediating bridge between model and painting, he will start work on the canvas.
In a sense it would be “better not to see” the decaying head of Norman Bates’s long deceased mother in that penultimate scene of Psycho that takes place in the cellar of the Bates house. Likewise it is “better not to see” Meade’s working models. There is something alarmingly untransformed and inorganic about them, almost reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s phrase (later overworked by Mario Perniola’s book of the same title) “the sex appeal of the inorganic.” For me, Meade’s working models are disturbing because they remain unsublimated. The act of rendering them as images, through photography and then painting, is what permits sublimation. In a sense then it is the painting of them that allows the sculptural images to appear at all and the sculpted models themselves are therefore not quite visible yet, not quite images yet. Painting makes them into images. Painting is sublimation here.
Meade’s images operate in their own realm. It’s a complex hybrid realm. Within the painting’s densely distilled figures a strange fusion happens that connects the undead head of Mrs Bates to the plotted table-theatres of Giorgio Morandi’s studio. And then also to the fetishism of that other fundamental Hitchcock scene: the one from Vertigo in which Scotty, after coercing Judy to dress in imitation of the dead loved object, at last attains the joy of seeing her as the dead Madeleine when he notices that she is wearing Madeleine’s necklace, and “is” therefore Madeleine. So perhaps the equation “Judy = Madeleine” (which of course is also equivalent to “Judy ≠ Madeleine”) is a handy guide to Damien Meade’s deceptively hermetic painting project. After all, it’s obviously no accident that Meade’s eroticism of the inorganic is aligned along gendered lines. His “assisted” mannequin heads always end up elegant and unambiguously female, while his much more inchoate and lumpy potato-head figures are ambiguously male. Rather like Jean-Luc Godard’s remark that classical cinema was men looking at women, Meade’s work seems to declare that painting’s enduring inheritance is the male gaze that renders finite, raw stuff undead and infinitely alluring by figuring it as female and remote. Yet the strength of the work also lies in not proposing anything like a straight deconstruction of this gaze. There is no easy critical or moral distance to be found here. Things are much more entangled than that.
Meade’s approach to painting is malleable and open enough to generate a surprising range of outcomes. Through the conceit of the sculptural source he is able to pitch his images delicately between genres. Sometimes the objects look like severed limbs or jawbones yet to shed their flesh, recast as weapons. Sometimes the featureless chromatic grey space of the backgrounds enables ambiguities of scale: a blob of clay here could be the size of a fist or as big as a Stonehenge monolith. This kind of scalar uncertainty has to do with scrutinizing an object outside its spatial setting. Alberto Giacometti spoke of a comparable experience of visual miniaturization whenever he scrutinized a figure in space and imagined it removed from its setting. Meade’s objects are always figural. They are never just objects, materials or stuff, but always objects becoming figures, becoming personas. They are never quite identical to themselves. These objects/figures have no setting. But they are acted upon by light, affected by gravity and the bruises of their coming into being. We recognise immediately how much their world shares with ours.
In his book Manet’s Modernism, or the Face of Painting in the 1860s Michael Fried shows how Manet was concerned not just with hybridizing painting genres, but with developing new formats in which multiple genres could be added up together. Manet favoured the déjeuner sur l’herbe format (derived from the older fête champêtre) because it allowed him to bring together landscape, figure composition, portrait, the nude and still-life in one image. Fried also notes that still-life has a kind of ontological advantage as a genre of painting. Just as a painting itself is an immobile, enduring thing in the world, so in the still-life it presents an image of immobile, enduring things. Hence for Fried, still-life painting as such has a built-in reflexivity that lends it a particular power. Bearing in mind these effects of genre (both single and blended), it’s worth considering Meade’s project as an attempt – against the odds – to hybridize the still-life with the portrait. That is a strange proposition. If still-life is the genre that mirrors the immobility of painting, then the portrait is the genre that relates structurally to its “facingness”: to a painting’s having a front and a back. Meade’s work doesn’t just place the two genres alongside one another: it attempts a genuine synthesis. By embedding his “portraits” in the conventions of still-life, Meade invokes the primordial passivity of our own materiality – of our relation to our bodies, our minds, our neurons, our desire, our bruises, as material stuff. This synthesis of pictorial genres is ambitious and difficult. It doesn’t come easily. It requires tact. It often demands a particular sacrifice in which the face itself is withheld. Hence the paintings often show a head from behind, or viewed obliquely, almost never returning our gaze. To enact the portrait within the trappings of the still-life is to mark it as a special scene of loss, a loss that seems both to shape and precede us. Another evocative French phrase offers a clue and links Meade’s paintings back to the impossible equation of Judy and Madeleine: profil perdu.
John Chilver 2013
John Chilver is an artist and writer based in London. This text was produced to accompany Damien Meade's solo show at Scheublein Bak Gallery, Zurich, in 2013.
Damien Meade: A History of Fear
by Geraint Evans
(Turps Banana Magazine, March 2012)
A disturbing cinematic moment haunted my childhood dreams. In Ealing Studio’s Dead of Night (1945) a ventriloquist is driven to the edge of madness and to an act of attempted murder by his seemingly conscious dummy. Whilst incarcerated for his crime, the ventriloquist is reunited with his dummy on the orders of a prison psychiatrist. He snaps, first smothering the dummy and then crushing its head beneath his boot. The camera cuts to the dummy’s head which is displayed in all of its visceral horror, caved in and smashed, the ghoulish effect heightened by the dummy’s impeccable attire of dinner jacket and smart bow tie.
It was not so much the film’s narrative that disturbed me but, rather I felt a tangible shock and revulsion in response to this one scene - the dummy’s crushed skull is an apt substitute for the flesh and blood of a real human head.
In his essay on the Uncanny, Sigmund Freud develops Ernst Jentsch’s ideas about the “intellectual uncertainty” that arises in the face of animate objects that might, in fact, be dead or lifeless objects that appear to be animate; for example, waxwork figures, dolls, automata and, in this case, the ventriloquist’s dummy (1).
The paintings of Damien Meade depict hand-rendered heads modelled in clay, tape and wire. Although we are aware of their lifeless materiality these subjects seem unnervingly alert. The heads’ fabrication might appear to be crude and improvised, however, there is real craft in their painterly representations. These paintings provoke an empathy in the viewer through our recognition of this most human of subjects. We recognise the inanimate nature of the model heads but their pictorial representations provoke a sense of uncertainty, as they hover between still lives and portraits, inert matter and sentient beings.
Often Meade’s work takes its cue from the death rattle, concerning itself with the very moment that the living body reverts to inanimate matter, the slim boundary between life and death. In her seminal essay Powers of Horror (1982), Julia Kristeva describes the effect of beholding a dead body as “abject”, suggesting that "the corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life" (2).
A number of paintings made in 2007, for example, depict what appear to be small clay heads - diminutive death masks with sunken eyes and pallid skin. The authorial application of paint echoes the form of the hand-fashioned clay it represents, creating a memento mori that calls death into life.
The head is a persistent motif in Meade’s work, often appearing decapitated, physically disfigured or incomplete. In the catalogue for Undercover Surrealism (2006), the Hayward Gallery’s exploration of Georges Bataille’s radical surrealist magazine DOCUMENTS (1929/30), Michael Richardson describes a “significant shift” between ancient and modern relationships to the head. He writes: “ancient peoples maintained heads as energy sources through which the active power of the dead remained potent. In modern times, in contrast, relics are maintained to dispel or annul the actuality of death, to render it harmless by pretence that the dead are still alive” (3).
In Piri (2011) a black, featureless head sits on an indistinct surface. The subject references both the form of the traditional sculptural portrait and the gimp’s mask, creating an unsettling and disturbing effect. The work’s composition is tightly cropped, however, reflections on the object’s smooth surface reveal the world beyond the painting’s edge, a world that remains tantalisingly elusive. The head’s sculptural modelling asserts its objectness and yet the proximity of the canvas edge, where the painted surface has been sanded and scuffed to reveal a number of layers reasserts the physicality of the stretcher, pulling the rug from beneath the work’s pictorial illusion. As viewers we oscillate between these two positions, both embracing the illusion and yet understanding the mechanics of its contrivance.
As much as there is a sense that Meade’s subjects are in a state of decay or collapse we are also aware of the artist’s process of modelling and production. In conversation, Meade often refers to the Jewish story of the Golem, an automaton created from clay or mud. It reminds me of the references to the Golem myth in Bruce Chatwin’s novella Utz (1988) in which the central protagonist recounts a mediaeval text apparently discovered by Gershom Scholem which describes Jesus Christ modelling birds from clay which, “once He had uttered the sacred formula, would sing, flap their wings and fly”. More pertinently, he also recounts the well known story of Rabbi Loew of Prague who controlled his Golem, Yossel, with a shem, a sliver of metal inscribed by the word ‘emeth’ or ‘Truth of God’. Removing the first letter would spell ‘meth’ or ‘death’ and signal the Golem’s demise (4).
The Golem seems to embody both the living and the dead and In Death, Memory and Material Culture (2001) Elizabeth Hallam and Jenny Hockey highlight a number of examples of memento mori in which the body is also depicted “simultaneously preserved and decaying”. For example, medievil transi tombs would incorporate two representations of the deceased in carved stone: the subject as lifelike and ‘alive’ and the body in a state of decomposition. Meanwhile, inscriptions would call upon the viewer to look upon the decaying body, “to see themselves in the other” (5). The corpse, Kristeva writes, “beckons to us and ends up engulfing us” (6).
Occasionally, Meade makes direct references to specific people in his work. For example, The Information (2011) is a loose portrait of the artist’s late father and painstakingly depicts a skull-like form shaped by a complex web of twisted wire. Given the reference to clay modelling in Meade’s other paintings it is tempting to think of this as a mere armature. However, a trompe l’oeil cigarette has been ‘inserted’ where the mouth should be. Smoked down to the butt, one senses that the final drag is providing the noirish pause before the anecdote, tall story or killer line. The wire suggests a complex web of neurological activity - the stuff of life itself.
Meade often utilises a form of trompe l’oeil, for example, inserting pairs of eyes to animate the most lifeless of material such as the grey modelling clay that he favours. These eyes are almost certainly human, their circular form and the placement of shadow and reflective light locates them in an ambiguous pictorial space both hovering on and, peering from behind, the work’s surface; like the watchful voyeur positioned behind the picture peepholes of countless horror films.
When other parts of the body are depicted by Meade they appear physically mutilated. For example, Foot (2009) depicts a dismembered foot, pallid and bloated with disfigured toes and blackened nails, propped up like a relic or trophy. A single toe ring signals the humanity (and perhaps vanity) of its owner. According to Freud: “Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist ... all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when ... they prove capable of independent activity in addition” (7). The possibility of animation is perhaps suggested by Meade’s facility with process and materials. I think of Ron Muek’s (perhaps only truly convincing) sculpture Dead Dad (1996-97), where the sense of the uncanny, the frisson of uncertainty about the figure’s mortal status is contingent on the work’s absolute mirroring of the corpse through an astonishing application of craft. Perhaps a more pertinent reference for Meade would be The Sacred Made Real exhibition held at the National Gallery in 2009 which included works by Zurbarán, Velázquez, Juan de Mesa and Juan Martínez Montañés. Again, these artists displayed a skilful virtuosity in order to provoke an astonishment in the viewer and, as Laura Cumming puts it, to bring “the mysteries of faith and the soul into brilliantly vivid reality” (8).
Foot was made after the artist witnessed the public cremation of a young girl in the Indian city of Varanasi in 2006. As the cremation proceeded Meade noticed that one of the child’s legs had became detached and had rolled from the pyre. In the midst of this abject horror, it was the girl’s toe ring that called Meade’s attention, imbuing the chard limb with a sense of humanity and the girl’s own personal history. Of equal significance to the artist was this very public display of death, something to be witnessed rather than hidden.
In Talcum (2011) grey, hand-worked clay is formed into a head, topping shoulders that have been modelled in a black reflective material. This bust resembles the mannequin heads that can be seen in the window displays of the numerous beauticians in Ridley Road market, North East London, the location of Meade’s studio. Although the head is turned from the viewer in a coy pose, make-up and false eye lashes can clearly be seen - a vain attempt to beautify the lifeless ‘flesh’. This, perhaps, references a central idea of memento mori and the 16th/17th century vanitas still life painting tradition: the notion that the earthly world is nothing but a mere fleeting vanity. Indeed, we could apply this reading to Foot which juxtaposes the toe ring (a signifier of earthly riches) against the disfigured leg (a reminder of the inevitability of death and decay).
The market in Ridley Road, with its plethora of Halal and West African butchers where offal, poultry feet and hooves make fascinating displays, seems to have exerted a significant if initially unconscious influence on Meade’s work. Indeed, when I first visited him there in 2007 he was painting a hand crafted clay model of a goat’s head and rows of dismembered human fingers.
We recently discussed this issue in relation to Eli Lotar’s photographs of the abattoir in La Villette, Paris which accompanied Bataille’s text Abattoir in DOCUMENTS (1929). Neil Cox describes their inclusion as “an avant-garde shock tactic” designed to expose the “paranoid-hygenic bourgeoisie to the abattoir, whose accursed nature Bataille interprets as a symptom of the sclerosis of polite society” (9).
However, he also notes Lotar’s “poetic impulse” which is expressed in the image of a row of calves feet propped against a wall, apparently attempting to stand once more. In another image, we see the pathetic spectacle of a recently flayed cow skin that appears to have ‘crawled’ across the pavement trailing smears of blood. This propensity to anthropomorphise the products of the abattoir or, indeed, the butcher’s stall may well have shaped Meade’s approach to the subject of the body.
In On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart writes about the body as both container and contained which continually focuses our attention upon its “boundaries or limits”. She identifies what Jacques Lacan termed “erotogenic zones”, areas of the body where slits or gaps are located, for example, the lips, anus, eyes and so forth. Stewart writes that according to Lacan, “…it is these cuts or apertures on the surface of the body which allows the sense of ‘edge’, borders, or margins by differentiating the body from the organic functions associated with such apertures” (10). Meade seems to explore this idea in Untitled No. 3 (2008) where a crudely modelled vagina/ anus is fashioned from the pathetic remains of a dismembered body, the grotesque orifice turning the inside out, making the visceral bodily interior visible.
The heads depicted in Meade’s most recent paintings appear to be constructed from a more robust material, perhaps bronze, cast iron or even a smooth black ceramic. They are assigned melodramatic titles such as Trail of Dead, Cold Blood and Iron and A History of Fear (all 2011). The pathos and modesty of his death mask works of 2007 has been replaced by motifs that find echoes in the historic sculpted portraits of noted dignitaries. Hallam and Hockey explain how memorial sculpture and portraits largely represent the corpse as a living body creating “a cultural translation that seeks to render invisible the material reality that is the dead body” (11). This seems utterly at odds with Untitled No. 3 or Foot and marks an intriguing development in Meade’s practice.
My thoughts return once again to Dead of Night and the haunting image of the ventriloquist dummy’s shattered skull. Perhaps it has stayed with me for so long because, as the critic and theorist Rosalind Krauss suggests: “To produce an image of what one fears, in order to protect oneself from what one fears – this is the strategic achievement of anxiety, which arms the subject, in advance, against the onslaught of trauma, the blow that takes one by surprise” (12).
(1) Freud, Sigmund (1919) 2003. The Uncanny, Penguin Classics.
(2) Kristeva, Julia 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press
(3) Richardson, Michael in Baker, Simon; Ades, Dawn 2006. Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and DOCUMENTS, Hayward Gallery Publishing.
(4) Chatwin, Bruce 1988. Utz, Picador
(5) Hallam, Elizabeth and Hockey, Jenny 2001: Death, Memory and Material Culture, Berg Publishing
(6) Kristeva, Powers of Horror
(7) Freud, Sigmund, the Uncanny
(8) Cumming, Laura Oct 2009. The Observer
(9) Cox, Neil in Undercover Surrealism
(10) Stewart, Susan 1993. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, Duke University Press
(11) Hallam and Hockey, Death, Memory and Material Culture
(12) Krauss, Rosalind E. and Bois, Yve-Alain 1997. Formless: A User’s Guide, Zone Books
Geraint Evans is an artist based in London. This text appeared originally in Turps Banana Magazine, issue 11, in Spring 2012.