Graham Gussin: The Mary Jane Paintings
Handel Street Projects
9 June - 14 July, 2018
Review by Matthew Turner
Graham Gussin’s The Mary Jane Paintings are illegal. They aren’t illegal in the same way that the art market is increasingly criminal, such as how the sale of da Vinci’s Salvador Mundi was called ‘the biggest art fraud in history’ or how works of art featured heavily in the Panama Papers as vehicles for tax evasion and other financial crimes. Instead, they are directly illegal; made from hashish that has been ground down, mixed with linseed oil and applied to linen and paper. The artist considers cannabis a ‘street material’ that you can smell everywhere in London, but which is still a taboo hiding in plain sight.
In their current arrangement at Handel Street Projects, The Mary Jane Paintings form a collision of the similarities between the intoxicating effects of both art and drugs along with drawing parallels between dealing in art and dealing in illegal substances. The paintings were developed slowly over a 12-year period — the process of gradually layering the hashish and linseed mixture is incredibly painstaking. The aptly named ‘Monster, 2010’ was started first and sits at the centre of the exhibition. Gussin added layers to its surface while the other works were being completed, making it the smallest yet most expensive piece in terms of the amount of hashish it contains. It is darker than the other lighter filigree works of utopian or intoxicated vision, and while it spans the duration of the time it took to create the works in the exhibition, with each of its narcotic layers it also shows that over time utopian veils over reality can thicken, become muddied and redact to the world as much as they contribute towards it. In much the same manner as the psychedelic Swinging Sixties was as damaging as it was liberating.
The register of time captured in ‘Monster’ (2010), makes the works seem less about painting, as the title of the show alludes to, and instead, lends them a greater alliance to other mediums that evolve over time, such as film and sculpture. Talking about the suite of works Gussin resists concessions to the history of painting, while also rejecting ideas of abstraction. Conversely, The Mary Jane Paintings are sculptural and show his material manipulations of hashish on the surface. However it’s sculptural tendencies are nuanced, compressed into the canvas’ finish, leaving the ‘painting’ aspect of the show’s title as just a reference to the idealized nature of traditional landscape painting.
Gussin explores this folly further in ‘Retreat’ (2016). The painting shows a primitive woodland hut, a common image of a relaxation and escape from the world, perhaps even someone’s dream of liberation seen through nicotine-infused and drug-soaked eyes. The scene, however, on closer investigation, has been taken arbitrarily from a Google image search for ‘retreat’, which strips its authenticity and significance. Utopia, whether it is one derived from art or drugs, is unreachable, and particularly in the case of the exhibition it is rendered ungraspable, because the substance through which it can be reached is locked away in the surface of the canvas and the utopian illusions of traditional landscape painting have been undermined and faked.
In a different search for altered states or utopia, people of extreme wealth often ‘take’ art as some kind of palliative drug to ameliorate the way in which their wealth has been accumulated. Art patrons the Sackler family and their connection to opioid crisis are a timely example. The Mary Jane Paintings, however, reject being bought for these reason - it’s unclear whether Gussin’s work could ever be ‘bought’ without implicating the artist as a drug dealer anyway - as it would just be another illegal asset, but one that is transparently illicit, rather than being a proxy for unlawful activity.
After all the other themes that they explore, the works also turn a mirror on themselves — like all good art does — and the hypocrisy of the art market. Here, their materiality means that they may never be legally dealt. If art ever had redemptive potential, it is being quickly diminished by the increasing reliance on a work or artist’s market for validation, thus, Gussin has rendered The Mary Jane Paintings as a much-needed act of inoculation.