Victims of Circumstance - Elliot Burns
Our news media is not what it used to be. 2016 was the year Michel Gove stuck it to ‘expert opinions’, and in 2017, Kellyanne Conway really put the nail in the coffin by validating ‘alternative facts’ (fuck ‘em both). What we once relied upon for its authenticity has been called into disrepute, with both reporting and reported information being suspect.
The result, news, ultimately, becomes another fictional fabric akin to the narrative composition of a painting. It no longer relays facts, rather an impression, a collage of information that viewed in thirty minute sittings infers a notion of the world. And so, if news is now an assembled artwork, then surely the inverse is true, that an artwork can act as news? In the case of Wasp Elder (aka Sam Worthington), a muralist and painter based in Berlin, this is true.
Elder’s solo show at 1963 Gallery, Victims of Circumstance, brings together a set of recent paintings, depictions of nondescript scenes that are reminiscent, yet conversely entirely fabricated fictions. Each painting begins life in a process of “drag and drop” that will be familiar to many. You sit for hours in-front of a computer screen Googling subject after subject, collecting image after image until “a digital nightmare” has accumulated on your desktop.
Out of the chaos of news reports, film stills, protests, rituals, horror scenes, catastrophes and history, Elder emerges with a choice selection that appear “painterly”, that resonate with a worthy quality. Two or three images are taken into photoshop, arranged, re-arranged, contrasted and experimented with, until the correct form is found, a painting waiting to be put to canvas, hidden in a incalculable sum of combinations.
When the images emerge Elder has created scenes that convey a universal despair. The figures that populate his paintings aren’t those that have saturated the daily news features, refugees passing into Europe, they’re everyone, unified by a sorrow expressed in the briefest glimpses of their eyes. The people are desperate, impoverished and transitory, caught in the wake of political calamity, or trapped in unseen experiments. At other moments they are fighting against these powers, masking themselves, adorning contemporary tribal decorations, and rebelling against authority, ready for battle.
Whatever the case, the subjects are “blurred out of context”, always indistinct. We cannot ever truly know where they are from. The effect, is that we, as viewers, need to employ our journalistic tendencies, the same skill set we are developing to tackle today’s chaotic media ecosystem. Our imaginations push at the images, trying vainly to work out from where they originate, to penetrate through the paint, back to the source material. These invented spaces call us to “constantly question” what we are being told; but they refuse to answer.
Like the news from which they are drawn, Elder’s images contain fragments of a truth, re-arranged until the reality is obscured and made “absurd”. However, there is one fundamental difference, the materiality of each media: paintings need to be “experienced physically”; the texture conveys a realness that the artificial glow of computer or TV screen never can. And so in a way, the fiction of a painting holds the potential to take us somewhere more truthful than the fictions we get from the 9 O’clock News.