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Michael Armitage, Lacuna, 2017. (c) Michael Armitage. Photo (c) White Cube (George Darrell). Courtesy of the Artist and White Cube.

Michael Armitage: The Chapel at the South London Gallery

16 December 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

The South London Gallery often host new work from up and coming artists. In Michael Armitage’s first major solo show, 8 paintings are hung around the central gallery space. The title of this showing ‘The Chapel’ speaks to this very space, and introduces the theme of religion and worship into the canvases.

Each painting, with their idiosyncratic colour schemes, textured surfaces, and blurred boundaries between figure and colour, seems in conversation with one another. It appears as if Armitage is using each canvas to adapt or amend his thoughts, translating issues from painting to painting to pose questions about representation and form. Very unusually, all eight paintings have been completed in 2017, making them entirely contemporary and giving visitors the opportunity to interact with art made in the very moment.

Armitage’s work engages with East African contemporary history and politics, as well as founding myths and stories, and religious imagery. These paintings complicate the idea of representing these stories, both the impossibilities of transcribing folklore, as well as the cultural assumptions that we, as Western viewers, may have about what folklore from other countries actually entails.  This impossibility is paradoxically communicated through the striking use of colour and shapes in these paintings.  Armitage contrasts the depiction of figures and landscapes with the colours through which they are communicated, asking: how does our reaction to colour affect our response to content?

Two paintings in particular stick out: ‘Lacuna’ and ‘Exorcism’ are the two largest of his canvases, containing multiple figures and faces. ‘Exorcism’ depicts a ritual in Tanzania, where women gather in public to be exorcised. In the large groups of people together, or couples dancing, the painting does not make it clear whether this is a cause for celebration or something more sinister.  The faces are just washes of colour in greens or greys, again obscuring the reactions to the event. ‘Lacuna’ also obscures any central meaning, but through formal confusion of foreground and background.  In the broad washes of greys, greens and yellows, faces and bodies merge, hovering above the water in which stands a boat.  In both, human activities are shown, but the internal dramas are not on display; this not only represents the ambiguity of human feeling but also does not allow for one particular reading to be given to each image.

The notes that accompany the exhibition explain that Armitage references the history of Western Art through composition, naming specifically Gauguin and Titian. Across these paintings, Gauguin’s influence feels particularly clear in the arrangement of the landscape, particularly in the interplay between foreground and background, and the contrasting use of colour.  In harking back to earlier forms of landscape and figure painting, Armitage places his paintings in a historical wider context, thinking about how people have been represented in their surroundings. But this also posits the question of how Western artistic practices can represent the everyday experience of people in East Africa.

There also seems to be another influence at work in these images, both in colour and form: the Russian painter Marc Chagall. This is particularly apparent in Armitage’s use of a vivid green line shaping figures in the background of ‘Exorcism’, as well as a patch of colour in the background of ‘Conjestina’.  Chagall famously combined dream-like sequences and animal imagery in his work, exploring the problems of communicating folklore and history through painting. Armitage seems to be thinking through similar issues, making connections between narrative and image, between tales of the past and dreams.  

Armitage uses lubugo bark cloth, a Ugandan material, as the canvas of all of his paintings. This cloth is made from ficus tree bark, and was a common part of dress in Uganda, before the popularisation of cotton. Now, the cloth is still used as part of traditional ceremonies, whilst also being produced as souvenirs for tourists. In using this cloth, Armitage literally paints over tradition, whilst also incorporating it into his work. In this, Armitage asks if people can ever truly remove themselves from the past.

Armitage’s explores the relationship between traditional painterly composition and the limitations of representation. This is an exhibition full of ideas, giving visitors the opportunity to think about the physical location of meaningful art. It is also a rare opportunity to see work that has been produced so recently, giving the room a sense of urgency and relevancy.
 
Michael Armitage: The Chapel at the South London Gallery until 23 February 2018. Entrance free.
 
 
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