South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Rd, London SE5 8UH

Michael Armitage: The Chapel

South London Gallery

13 December 2017 - 23 February 2018

Review by Piers Masterson

Following on from his excellent show in summer 2017 at Turner Contemporary with this exhibition of eight new paintings, Michael Armitage stakes a strong claim to being the leading figurative painter of the group that has emerged from London art schools in the last decade.

In several works Armitage draws together with compositions and themes from the European painting cannon as a lens to observe subjects from Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa. At the centre of the exhibition is ‘Marsyas’ (2017) a large depiction of the Greek myth best known from Titian’s ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’. Marsyas in Titian’s painting is a half goat satyr, making the extreme violence somehow acceptable as a purging of his sexual characteristics. Armitage’s arrangement with the fully human figure of Marsyas clinging to the horizontal branch makes the scene closer to a lynching. The presence of a child petting a dog copied from Titian’s version enforces the interpretation of communal violence as spectacle and entertainment. The melancholy figure of Midas who contemplated the scene in Titian’s version is replaced by a sexualised figure on the right whose pose recalling Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ taps multiple associations of the fantasised ‘Primitive’ Odalisque.

Armitage’s citing of African cultural motifs and subjects could be treated as a simple free play of imagery, similar to David Salle’s equivalence of 17th century Dutch genre painting with pornography. Armitage deserves credit for portraying specifics of the post-colonial history of Kenya. ‘Nyayo’ (2017) placed next to ‘Marysyas’ depicts another tortured male nude, now with a snake wrapped round his leg recalling ‘Laocoon’. The title is taken from the interrogation centre used by the Kenyan dictatorship to suppress socialist opposition in the 1980s, actions the ‘civilised’ western powers condoned.

‘Exorcism’ (2017) is based on a ritual from Tanzania that the gallery guide informs us that the artist learned about from online sources. The figures create a range of associations with European painting from Giotto to Gauguin. The vibrating central figures of ‘Exorcism’ caught in their ritual still echo Western modern art’s problematic encounters with African ‘primitivism’ and fetish for tribal dances. The more striking part of the painting is the depression in the middle of the space created by the natural texture of the lubugo cloth from East Africa that is Armitage’s signature technical effect. In filling this cavity, Armitage creates a visual aberration, a distortion with red flecks of paint that hovers in the air. The area in which the figures stand is made up from shimmering patches of colour that are a delightful demonstration of the artist deploying paint purely for the pleasure of it.

‘Anthill’ (2017) with its twisting tree suggests a different set of references from Asia. The flattened pictorial space and expanse of blue and lilac skyscape, central peak and floating figures is reminiscent of Hokusai. The mass of the hill - enhanced by the texture of the lubugo cloth - is an affirmation of the power of nature. The three flying witches combine Goya’s demonic figures with characteristics of the twerking dancers of a music video to comic effect. A figure in the foreground appears to both be fleeing, pursued by the hyena-riding witches and beckons us to witness the scene as new predators arrive to feast on the body of Africa.

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