‘The world is increasingly unthinkable — a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all.’
Eugene Thacker, ‘In the Dust of This Planet’, 2011
The group painting exhibition ‘The World Without Us’ is based on the book by Professor Eugene Thacker at The New School, New York, called: ‘In the Dust of This Planet’. The nihilist book is a meditation on the meaning of life, or rather re-imagines a world where life has no purpose. A world plagued by catastrophe, suffering, threats of war and extinction — this isn’t a world of fairy-tales and happy endings but daily horrors created by man’s destructive nature and incessant consumption. In the twentieth century, thinkers such as Hannah Arendt have articulated, as in her seminal text ‘The Human Condition’, that art gives meaning to life and provides proof of existence through its permanent nature. As Arendt says, ‘the permanence of art’ bestows ‘immortality’, not the ‘immortality of the soul or of life but of something immortal achieved by mortal hands’ which becomes ‘tangibly present, to shine and to be seen’. Whereas, in the more pessimistic writings from Thacker, people are impermanent and insignificant. The world can and will exist, without us. Ironically, without people, art cannot be made. So then, what does Thacker’s book have to do with a painting exhibition in Deptford?
A.P.T is a white wall space. Visitors arrive firstly at the tiny artworks from London-based artist, Phillip Allen. Fitting in perfectly with the cosmic title of Thacker’s book, Allen’s oils are applied to boards, like neutron stars in appearance, loaded with texture. It’s hard to resist reaching out to try to touch the work. In similar earthy shades of acrylic paint to Allen’s three miniatures is Polish artist Maja Godlewska’s sprawling sculptural ‘#Terrain 2’ artwork (2018/2019). The scrolls link to the concept literally, documenting the world itself. The painting depicts exotic foliage, perhaps an endangered rainforest, an insight into what will soon vanish.
Swedish artist Sally Kindberg’s three large scale paintings portray ‘Otherworldiness’. The artist’s ‘Big News’ (2019), a top pick of the show, has all the qualities of Surrealist painting, alike to René Magritte in its strange figuration and use of a pipe. One of Magritte’s most famous paintings ‘The Human Condition’ was painted in 1933 and again in 1935, and in 1958 Arendt gave her literary work the same title. In the artwork ‘The Human Condition’ Magritte reflects on how we see the world, outside of us. As Magritte says on ‘The Human Condition’ in a letter to Belgian poet Achille Chavée in 1960: ‘Time and space lose meaning and our daily experience becomes paramount. This is how we see the world. We see it outside ourselves’. This is all quite similar to ground covered in Thacker’s ‘In the Dust of This Planet’. In ‘Big News’ (2019) a mirror appears to the left of a smoking pipe and giant thumb (dressed in a bow tie) on a table, the mirror a portal to another dimension. Similarly, the floating eye in Kindberg’s ‘Green Rest’ (2018) on the melting floor is reminiscent of the eye from Magritte’s ‘The False Mirror’ (1928). Iranian Soheila Sokhanvari’s kaleidoscopic egg tempera work of Mohammad Reza Shah, surrounded by clouds, is not dissimilar to the inside of the eye in ‘The False Mirror’, offering a glimpse into the artist’s cosmic subconscious and of the past.
In opposition to Kindberg and Sokhanvari’s Surrealist paintings, Andrew Leventis’ oils on linen employ stark realism where objects are true to form — evoking the painterly style of 15th and 16th century Netherlandish Northern Renaissance. Interior worlds are frozen in time without any people. In the era of the Renaissance, art without human subject matter was considered lowly. Despite the differences in style, Leventis and Kindberg’s paintings both include a mirror and table as central features. The mirror in Leventis’ ‘Stafford Terrace House 1’ (2019) echoes that of Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434) where the mirror is used to show part of an interior scene otherwise hidden, as if a world within a world. The mirror in ‘Stafford Terrace House 2’ is more like that of the void patterns of Magritte, the mirror filled with fancy wallpaper reflections. In Sokhanvari’s ‘Touching the Void (Self Portrait 1992)’ (2017) geometric patterns convey the artist’s feelings of absence. Chilean Christiane Pooley’s pastel coloured oils on canvases carry on these themes of looking, of watching and being watched.
‘The World Without Us’ is an exhibition full of philosophical premise and reference to discourses around painting and art historical genres. I veer more towards Arendt’s takes on the act of creation as a positive one retaining some optimism, rather than the pessimistic quality of Thacker’s writing, and overall the visual experience of the exhibition itself is indeed uplifting.