Saturday, September 14, 2013

On John Keane's paintings

Yesterday I talked to a friend in my studio and showed him the new work on theatre siege. He could say that the images are familiar, since about five years ago there was an artist who made a work with those images. I had an early day today and made an effort to find and artist who made work about Moscow Theatre siege. It did turned out that the subject was not left out of the British art scene. John Keane, a painter from Hertfordshire made a project about Nord-Ost, or Dubrovka in 2004-2005. The Exhibition was called "Fifty Seven Hours in the House of Culture", (since hostages spent this long three days in the theatre under the siege of Chechen militants, it is a quote from Channel 4 Documentary used for production of the series). Later the exhibition travelled to Moscow and was presented under the same name in Sakharov Center under Yuri Samodurov's curatorship.
Looking at this all I started to wonder, what does it mean for a white middle class gallery-represented male painter in his 50s to produce those images? What does it mean to someone who was "Imperial War Museum's official artist during the Gulf War in 1990" to produce those images? What does it mean to someone who does conflict resolution portrait commissions for the National Portrail Gallery to paint what happened in Moscow's Dubrovka in 2002? Are those images shown in Moscow's Sakharov Center for the same reasons as they are in London? How do those images circulate on the market? What is this painter's motivation behind that this work is his continuation in his "dealing with political violence justifying itself as self defence" and an "interest in the terrorist/freedom fighter paradox" that earlier was explored in his work on Northern Ireland, Middle East and South America? Is that justifiable enough to make those representations - and by "make" here I also mean impose them on others? Oh yes, and in terms of the commercial success, "Pictures were sold before the exhibition even arrived" (to Moscow?) Kean's website lets us know that "Without exception, however, they were images of the hostages; the suicide bombers proved to be unwanted by all.

White British middle class male in his 50s
decoratively copying stills- - from 2003 Channel 4 documentary
Citing - and re-citing the dominant voices narrated behind the screen
Subtitling images
of someone who can not reply
the bich it dead!
who are you Channel 4 and Dan Reed
director of Inspector Lewis
who are you John Kean
mr official British wartime painter?
with some gold leaf and abstract-over the documentary image strokes
in pink and orange and yellow
to be the one commemorating that
without a pinch of questioning of what is your role doing that?
and where are those Russian artists who'd bother to take up the subject that their people need them to portray?
Who are you, John Kean, to attach gold leaf to the painting of Movsar Barayev?
Or a woman, whose name or story we may never know?
Who are you to decoratively brush-stroke the images of a theatre spectator who may now be forever asleep in the burgundy velvet seat of Dubrovka Theater
suffocated with still unknown- state secret gas substance?
Who are you to do it in defence of human rights?
Who are you to import human rights to Russia
- and show her artists how to represent them with stills from
your bloody documentary films,
with your English subtitles and with some gold leaf added?
Who are we to repeat what those people wanted to say there in Dubrovka in 2002?
Who are you to paint and sell the victim's images?
Who are you to frame their situation and suffering?

 A Russian journalist Julia Kvasok asks in her Novaya Gazeta article on the Sakharov Center exhibition:
 "It just seemed a little ridiculous - why was it not a Russian, but an Englishman who chose Nord-Ost as his theme? And why did the idea of having it shown in Moscow have to come from Human Rights Watch? I suppose that we are too close to the event's epicentre, and while holding it in our bare hands some of us cry out from the pain, while others out of habit hold their hands over our mouths to shut us up."
I'd say enough of self-censorship and it is time to start talking about the way Russian subject can see this tragedies. Its ridiculous to let other dominant voices of the West have a monopoly on the representation of political violence - of both militant insurgents and the state, and it is no longer possible to give men the right to dominate in those subjects. It is time to out-loud imperialist voices of the Westen and Russian govts that still have a tremendous control over the images. It is only us, ourselves who can decolonise us.

Few John Kean's works:

Nearly a spectacle - two by three meters 2004 painting "they shouted 'Got the Bitch'..." (oil on linen, 212x282cm)
I quite like the gun up images of a woman, but still I do not agree that this representational, pop-art cheering mode is appropriate. Pink? Yellow? Orange? Gold? - too much of market trick reference. But how is it possible to address the war, and show a pretence of a study with this expressionist markings? And yes, again, what does John Keane mean by his gold-backed Movsar Barayev painting?
Hey that resembles orthodox iconography, am I wrong here? Yay, yes, the painting is called "Iconography no 4" (2005, Ink jet, gold leaf/wood). Thanks to Human Rights Watch and Yuri Samodurov for curating iconography out of Sakharov Center exhibition! Someone in Moscow may see this as an offence, so different representation of Movsar Barayev was on display:

The "Bitch Triptych" has my particular dislike for its didacticism and title, and moralistic "mother-militant empowerment - death" narrative. Maybe it is just too sexualised with an open mouth of a woman on theatre chair on the right and a gun in the middle image looking phallic, and a cheeky and tender direct eye contact of a woman kissing a child on the left side? I have a feeling this is deeply wrongly composed.

An image form Moscow exhibition:
One can check out the images produced for international market and the ones showed in Moscow on Kean's website and on Sakharov centre website.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013