Yet there are troubling undercurrents: some darkness lies at the heart of the celebration.
It’s natural to ask of a group show: why these artists? Have they just been lumped together, or are they connected in some way? The participants in ‘Bread and Games’ have been well chosen, as the work of Miroslav Pomichal, Rachel Mercer and Archie Franks can be considered through three shared characteristics. First, they are representational painters for whom the expressive act of painting is foregrounded, whose subjects emerge very visibly from their formal concerns. They don’t paint in the same way, but with a shared intent, such that you see the paint before you see the purpose. That approach might be reckoned old-fashioned when so much current painting is driven primarily by an explicit engagement with subjects, such as gender roles and the politics of identity. Second, the wider practices of all three artists engage directly with the traditional genres - history painting, portraiture, landscape and still life - and the works chosen share a concern with people in the landscape, with the interaction of humanity and the natural world. Third, there’s a congruence of tone: celebratory, but with undertones that recognise darker aspects. There is pleasure, yes, but not without a flip side.
The show’s title picks up on that. The phrase can be traced back two millennia to the poet Juvenal, who denounced the Roman people for abandoning their civic duties so long as they received ‘panem et circenses’ - bread and circus games. So the phrase – most often rendered as ‘bread and circuses’ in English but ‘du pain et des jeux’ in French – has come to mean something offered as a means of distracting attention from a problem or grievance. That suggests that these enjoyably painterly and bucolic depictions of cricket, playgrounds and landscapes, much as we might enjoy them, contain aspects of the more serious matters from which we might be distracted.
Miroslav Pomichal’s ‘Peasant Revolt’ series emerges out of a somewhat unusual technique you might call ‘integrated layering’: he leaves his initial application of oil paint to dry for six hours to a day - depending on conditions - to reach a point at which the next layer can be blended in a controlled way. That can be contrasted with both the successive layering of paint onto fully dry preceding layers – typical of classical painting – and with the application of paint onto previous still-wet layers, as seen in the spontaneous and immediate plein air paintings of the impressionists. This in-between technique allows Pomichal to achieve a surface which is sculptural yet expressive, and is applied all-over so that the canvas is intensely animated by his brushstrokes.
The landscapes Pomichal presents are of walls, fields and skies, something of an opening out from preceding work in which the wall was often dominant. He sees the walls as a metaphor for painting itself, with its ‘heavy materiality, tactility and solidity’ that at the same time ‘aspires to something beyond itself, something immaterial’. They’re also a personal symbol of the artist in his studio looking out on the world: consistent with that, Pomichal explains that at one level he himself is the peasant revolting, the artist acting freely, disregarding the trends and expectations of the day in order to paint as he wishes. The fields brim with so much life that they seem to spill on up into the most striking part of these works: the skies. These are surreal combinations of organic motifs swirling into colourful patterns: not so much heaven on earth as earth in heaven. They resemble both the Northern Lights and the energetic skyscape of van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Pomichal’s fantastical skies have a ludic dimension, and the same can be said of his walls, which take on a cartoonish aspect that echoes Philip Guston. It makes sense, then, that Pomichal often paints them from fish tank architecture – models made for aquaria. There’s a similar quality to the pitchforks and scythes with which the walls are punctuated, evoking somewhat comically the historical rather than personal side of the titular ‘peasant’s revolt’.
So where are we in place and time? Pomichal works between London and his native Slovakia, which he identifies with a particular combination of politics and nature, as seen in the agrarian tools ‘raised in violence to hint at the centuries old struggles, not just for class equality, but nationhood’. Pomichal refers to both the 15th century revolutionary assertion of people power in Bohemia, the period of the Hussite Wars; and the Communist rule of Czechoslovakia from 1948-89, derived more problematically from the same impulse of government in the interest of the peasant class. So celebration and trauma are both in play here. Now the walls come into focus as castles or cathedrals, the dominant structures of medieval times; and those corn-filled fields might evoke the vast agricultural production of Slovakia’s neighbour, Ukraine – ‘the breadbasket of Europe’ – and its perilous current position.
Rachel Mercer is interested in action and sensation, which she generally seeks to capture – contrasting with Pomichal’s method - within a day, or else she paints over her previous iteration. She finds that reworking rather than retouching avoids her slipping into the formalised placement of classically choreographed figures. Mercer’s approach resonates with the increasing speed of our lives - the sense of a moment in space capturing action and movement. She cites studying the economical mark-making of Chinese brush painting, Berthe Morisot and Gwen John’s sensitivity and lightness of touch, and the dynamic and sometimes calligraphic brushwork of Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach (whose pupils taught her) as key influences. The results foreground abstract qualities, but Mercer’s desire to paint life keeps her work figurative.
Mercer has previously focussed on social relationships and people she knows. Currently she is making two series in parallel, set in the contrasting leisure destinations of a shopping centre and a children’s playground. The playground features here, an ideal place to observe bodies in motion – the more so as children are close to their sensations, and are learning through their actions in a way you’d be hard-pressed to see in adults. Mercer paints in the studio out of memory and observational drawings which act as notes rather than preparatory studies. Working from a photograph, she has found, can overwrite her more three-dimensional and tactile memories and also provides too many details and colours - whereas memory acts as a helpful filter. She does not want to be distracted from such sensory memories as of the tactility of friction through clothing - or of metal on skin, as you go down the slide. Colours must be similarly intuitive: ‘if I find I’m thinking about the colour’, she says ‘the painting is probably not going so well.’ All of which may explain the freshness and air of spontaneity which characterises her work.
So are we in a land of pure pleasure, in the Arcadian setting of the park? Not entirely... ‘I don’t want the subject of leisure and children to look sickly sweet’, says Mercer. Consistent with that, we rarely see their faces fully. ‘As soon as you have an outward gaze it can look too posed and engaging. I want to capture the awkwardness. That’s part of making it a believable action.’ These are not idealised figures: we might sense that the children will grow up to become the surly adolescents and consumption-driven adults seen in shopping centres.
Archie Franks used to work somewhat like Pomichal, building up his paint towards what Sacha Craddock, identifying both painters as Soutine enthusiasts, has called ‘a slippery, sometimes deliberately tawdry, language’. Recently Franks has moved more in Mercer’s direction: lighter, thinner, more fluid. He attributes that to deliberately ‘painting against himself’, avoiding established habits to open up the way he paints by ‘thinking through each conceptual element of the picture and having to match what you’re doing with the paint effect for that’. He has also started to use pastels as a primary medium, and feels that has moved his oils on, too, ‘away from quite gloomy colour into something more vibrant’ - though he also uses a covering of spray paint ‘to knock things back, almost like a glaze’. ‘Bread and Games’ includes both oils – worked up from photographs, preliminary drawings and watercolour sketches – and pastels.
As for subject matter, Franks has concentrated on still life in recent years, exploring the intersection of consumerism with the more brutish side of Britishness through paintings of, for example, beer taps, fairgrounds, Punch & Judy and a Full English breakfast. Those allude to the more poisonous and divisive aspects of national identity, which found an outlet in Brexit. Now Franks has turned to cricket, seeing that as an attractively antagonistic, unfashionable art subject, more against the grain than trendy football. He bases his images on the most ‘chocolate box’ views from a book of ‘Remarkable Village Cricket Grounds’. Superficially, that makes for a nostalgia-tinged view, the effect reinforced by Frank’s dreamily naturistic palette. And yet… Cricket as a leisure activity is part of our consumer culture, in which mode traditionalists might argue that its virtues are being corrupted by the fast food equivalent of increasingly short limited-over formats. The elements are not always set fair: the light is poor in ‘Late Season Game’ and an almighty storm is surely brewing in ‘Cricket in the Parks’. The figures are ghostly presences, consistent with Franks recollection that ‘as a kid I was a cricket nut’ – but one who fell out of love with the game as a teenager. So these are indeed ghosts of his past: the nostalgia is haunted.
Franks arrives at a position neither straightforwardly celebratory nor wholly negative. It’s reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s view: in The Whitsun Weddings’ summary train journey across the nation ‘An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, / And someone running up to bowl’ but Going, Going worries that ‘the whole / Boiling will be bricked in… / And that will be England gone…’ Larkin is as ambiguous as Franks: he’s gloomy, but seems to relish that, and also finds moments of transcendence.
These three artists together might be reckoned to reverse Larkin’s movement: the beauty of nature and the freedom of play are on the surface, and not without transformative moments. Yet there are troubling undercurrents: some darkness lies at the heart of the celebration.
Text by Paul Carey-Kent