In palpable silence, a cluster of androgynes stand waiting. Full-breasted women with short cropped hair, hard-bodied men with delicate features marooned in a desolate post-industrial landscape. Other than their initial beauty – a problem for some viewers – what is so compelling about these figures that inhabit Guy Denning’s paintings? Even in groups they are isolated; in many cases there is no obvious narrative connection or discernible event to hold them in relationship to each other. Even the occasional inclusion of written text (as in You’ll Be Wanting a Happy Ending Then) tends not to help in the unravelling of meaning but throws it further into question. Yet this does not imply the absence of links between these figures. Indeed many of these works contain an underlying tension. The ambivalence of desire, its fascination and repulsion, is held in place by these static bodies. Yet there are other layers of ambivalence since neither heterosexual nor homosexual desire are exclusively addressed here, although both are called into question. Despite their isolation, significant looks (and covert glances) are exchanged between figures whose gender and sexual identity are frequently uncertain. This is where the viewer also becomes involved in a response to the artist’s challenging of easy meanings. The spectator’s gaze becomes caught up in the unravelling of a question whose answer will always be deferred. We are on slippery ground here, where stabilities of identity must be continually redefined and re-enacted. Indeed, Denning’s take on sexual politics has often been regarded as controversial: some of his earlier works, for example, explicitly dealt with fetishism and objectification, issues that feminism has problematised for male artists especially. Consistently, however, his work has challenged orthodoxies of representation of the body or even identity itself. Matters are queered further by the recurrent image of an androgynous short-cropped woman throughout the paintings, described by Denning as ‘an imaginary self portrait’. Yet the performance in his paintings of a distinctly perverse identity is one with an honourable precedent in the disruptive histories of modernism. Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego as Rrose Selavy comes to mind, although taken several stages further in the male artist’s fantasy of ‘his’ female embodiment. It is important that this should also not be confused with some reductive sense of ultimate possession and domination, as being ‘in’ the female body, but the deployment of desire as a challenge to the very limits of gendered subjectivity. It’s plausible to view this not just as a project of queering identity, vital though this is in the current war zone between conservatism and its repudiation. The radicalism signalled by Guy Denning’s practice is also due to its take on painting’s past – a matter, ultimately, of queering modernism itself. During the early 1990s a significant part of his practice mostly took the form of abstract gestural paintings, incorporating an enduring interest in the work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Franz Kline. Concerns over modernism’s exclusivity of audience and the problems of repeating an established history led, however, to their abandonment in favour of photocopy work some years later. Even at this early stage Denning’s relationship to modernism was somewhat ambivalent. Despite the pleasure in painting for its own sake engendered by modernism’s belief in its own autonomy, the artist’s fascination with the sweep of Kline’s magnificent gestures also included a sense of critical engagement. Denning’s abstractions at this point were also concerned with the attempt to reclaim the gestural brushstroke from the associations of normative heterosexual masculinity. Kline’s work may be regarded as perhaps perversely suited to this form of re-reading. It’s almost as if the sheer excess of his painterly gesture conveys something closer to a hypermasculinity, with the artist as competitive bodybuilder staging his performance within the picture plane. One further instance of an ambivalent relationship to modernism, also with far-reaching implications, is Guy Denning’s take on Degas. Degas’ painting The Young Spartans (1860-62) has been reworked by Denning in contemporary terms to depict a group of five male and female nudes in a bleak setting, whose air of urban decay contrasts sharply with Degas’ verdant landscape.
The tensions of the earlier painter’s engagement with the sexual politics of mid-nineteenth century France are re-engaged in terms of late 20th century issues of ambivalent identity. But this encounter is also about the process of painting itself, and the sense of pivotal moments in modernism’s history. Degas’ painting was one of those that marked the birth of modernism, in both the flatness and strangeness that brought an uncanny sense of modernity to its classical subject. It also suggests an ambivalent relationship to both classicism and modernity. This tension re-emerges in Denning’s practice, which suggests why Degas’ similar sense of contradiction may have seemed so attractive to him. However in Denning’s version the referencing of the past, including direct quotation from Degas’ painting, has been further complicated by the hindsight of modernism both in the representation of his figures and the ground they occupy. Without wanting to over-simplify matters, classicism privileged certain types of representation of an idealised male body, whereas it was the female body that became the locus of innovation in modernism. In his Young Spartans these two moments in the body’s history have been brought together in an uneasy relationship through an insistent androgyny. Yet this painting also suggests the linking together of classicism and modernism on a more complex level, despite the continued pleasure in the process of painting which for Denning is identified with the practices of modernism. The conscious evocation of classicised bodies exists in a setting that reeks of the end of modernity, the end of a culture of progress and optimism that provided the conditions for modernism to flourish. This disjuncture suggests a tension between real and unreal, that in a world undergoing the entropy of modernity the idealised body can exist only as fantasy, given form through the artist’s desire. There is a similar tension between the contemporary and the classical in Icarus (Scapegoat for an Atrocity), a work that possibly marks the conclusion of Denning’s current preoccupations. Although derived from Greek mythology, the title also refers to both the imagery of 9/11 and to possible interpretations of its causes. This is not to condone the actions of the perpetrators, but to suggest the cost of late capitalism’s failure to recognise the consequences of its own actions. Yet despite its origins in a specific event the painting deliberately lacks specific focus; the bleakness of its setting and anomie of its figures imply a lack of blame beyond a shared responsibility. What Guy Denning has produced here is in fact a contemporary history painting – one that evokes its classical precedents, but refuses moral judgement beyond noting the terrible fall of idealism.
© Fionna Barber 2003 (Senior Lecturer Art History, Manchester Metropolitan University)