The Guardian : Tuesday August 24, 2004
Britart is obsessed with being urban and brutal. But at least Christopher Bucklow isn't afraid of beauty, saysJonathan Jones.
Art by Christopher Bucklow from the exhibition I Will Save Your Life
'It might even risk being beautiful': Plastercasts of William Blake and Christoper Bucklow. Photo: Linda Nylind
Kettle's Yard is a house in Cambridge that used to belong to an art collector called Jim Ede. It's a relic from a world of art that no longer exists, where sculptures by Brancusi are displayed in rooms somewhere between an atelier and a captain's cabin, and every piece of furniture is a lovely craft object. Precious, certainly; 1950s in spirit, surely. But it is always a beautiful place to visit.
I hadn't thought about Kettle's Yard for a long time, until I went to see an exhibition of drawings and paintings by an artist who had been emailing and phoning me for weeks. Christopher Bucklow's PR strategy can backfire. But I went to see his show at Riflemaker Gallery. And what I found myself thinking of, looking at his sumptuous waxy colours and wavy flowering lines, was a picture at Kettle's Yard. It is a dream drawing by the early 20th-century Welsh poet and artist David Jones, in which hallucinated women from Arthurian myth blossom in a tangled serpentine woodland, in green and blue, in lines at once etched and flowing.
Jones was a 20th-century romantic, associated with the neo-romantic movement led by the architectural painter John Piper during the second world war. It's hard to think of a less fashionable art movement than neo-romanticism. In art it meant nostalgic images of churches, but it also meant David Jones, who was a poignant, introspective original, and it meant Mervyn Peake's novels about a grotesque, corrupt castle called Gormenghast. Why rake up all this old stuff? What's any of that got to do with art now? Nothing, obviously, except that it demonstrates how extreme and unlikely the convulsions of taste can be.
Sixty years ago, drowsy visions of medieval Britain were considered the very hottest thing in contemporary art. In 2004, art that is said to be contemporary is radically shorn of anything sentimental, romantic, nostalgic, pretty, or earnest. We are living a moment of hardheadedness. But has hardheadedness ever really been the condition of good art? For centuries, the British thought otherwise. Romanticism was the bleary lifeblood of British art, from the late 18th century right through to David Jones. Even today, for many people, the essence of British art is Pre-Raphaelitism, that romantic decay which delighted in long hair and flowers and knights in armour, while in Paris, Manet was painting a prostitute.
Perhaps it is because we lingered too long in the rock pools and the ruins that British art has now so violently expelled poetry, whimsy and legend from its newly lean, urban, hard body. Art in our time is brief and witty. Efficient clarity is respected. Longwindedness is not. But romantic art is deliberately longwinded, rambling, multi-faceted.
On the walls at Christopher Bucklow's gallery, along with his works, are some prints by William Blake. It is difficult to read and look at Blake except in gobbets, because this 18th-century artist and poet's moments of crystallised insight are mere fragments of his vast prophetic books, themselves parts of a mega-project of interpreting and symbolising history. Blake's ramblings wouldn't get him far in the London art world today - they didn't get him far in his own lifetime. But if you don't make room for windbaggery you don't get genius either, if it comes in a Blakeian form.
The obsession with hard-hitting, populist, eye-grabbing art that has taken over British galleries and museums and reviews since the early 1990s - let's be clear, I mean 'Britart' - has become a form of censorship. It censors mad, rambling, outsider art, eradicates introspection, obsession and confession; reduces art to the perfunctory and the parlayable. It was fun for a while, but now it's become a prison.
Is Christopher Bucklow our William Blake, come to burst the prison house of the mind with dream diaries, visionary drawings and intense spirals of colour? He might think he is. Only someone with a Blakeian sense of purpose buttonholes you and makes you discuss his work for two hours. But then again, only someone with a genuine claim to attention can talk this long about art and not bore me rigid.
So I agreed to see his damned work. It is immediately impressive, in a old-fashioned way. Bucklow has a fertile, productive imagination, and it generates art with a conviction and relaxed energy. Here is drawing that has passion and unpredictability of line, and painting nuanced in texture and sparking with colour. This is pretty much the definition of good art as I would have recognised it before I learned about installations, video or minimalism.
There's just one problem: it's pretty. You can't get away from the attractiveness of Bucklow's art. This isn't stuff I want to see in the Tate; it's stuff I want to own. He paints with a pink flourish that - deliberately - recalls the American abstract expressionists Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, but without the existential terror. Not that gothic is absent. These drawings are full of dangling viscera and spinal vertebrae that might be a part of Alien or Predator - or perhaps they're just flowers.
Bucklow instantly convinces you he is sharing something from his unconscious, and this is what makes his work authentic. It is not external to him, created for effect, or to fulfil a cultural brief; it is necessary for the artist, who has been undergoing psychoanalysis during a residency at the Wordsworth Trust. One of the works at Riflemaker is a complex, circular diagram charting his dreams. Another is a self- portrait at three ages, the heads forming a trinity, like Titian's Allegory of Prudence. This is personal, unguarded, and yet oddly serene - perhaps the serenity of a cult member. But so pretty. It might even risk being beautiful.
The suspicion of beauty in modern art has perfectly good motives. To be merely beautiful might be to be deceitful, flattering, decorative. The elimination of the aesthetic in con temporary British taste, however, has nothing to do with revolutionary attacks on bourgeois comfort. Charles Saatchi isn't the art world's Lenin. A social historian of the future will have a lot of fun theorising what happened to art in Britain at the turn of the 21st century. They will say it was all about class. A new, Thatcherite middle class, with none of the genteel cultural assumptions of the old British intelligentsia, identified with the aggression of Britart and chose urban modernity as its own style, as a way of neutralising the old elite culture and creating its own class identity. In this class war, prettiness became old and boring and lame, even to the degree that people found Grayson Perry's attacks on ceramics meaningful.
I suspect that Christopher Bucklow falls on the wrong side of looking middle class in the old way. His art is elegantly passionate, and it is in a British historical tradition. For all his quotation of American abstract painters, I instantly thought of David Jones, even of John Everett Millais' Ophelia, in the black water among the flowers. If we are to avoid turning our cult of the contemporary into an oppressive religion, we need to start rediscovering the varieties of artistic experience. Bucklow is an authentic exponent of British romanticism, something so terminally and embarrassingly remote from current taste that when you see his work, it feels like a view of the hills outside the prison window.
Art is in need of a cataclysm, a Messianic conversion, to free us from 'young' art that is no longer young. Living with Young British Art in its third decade (Damien Hirst curated Freeze in 1988) is like going to Glastonbury when you're 40 or being a grandad who can quote Beenie Man. It's become fake youth, fake modernity. From Freeze to the Frieze Art Fair, we've all come a long way. God help us. I don't think Christopher Bucklow is Christ, let alone William Blake, but perhaps he's John the Baptist. Or Henry Fuseli. Perhaps the flourishing of weeds like this on the margins of British art's hortus clausus is a sign things are crumbling, and as the romantics always knew, ruin is creative.