Daniel Culpan on Keith Cunningham
Keith Cunningham’s work are workout routines in inscrutability. In artwork as in life, the Australian-born artist was pushed by personal obsessions and a want for obscurity. Stashed in a spare room till Cunningham’s loss of life in 2014, the seventy-plus oils on canvas or board featured in “The Cloud of Witness” are dense with macabre moods and ever-lurking violence.
With a background in graphic design (Cunningham left faculty at fifteen to work within the promoting division of premier Sydney retailer David Jones), the artist fled the sunniness of his homeland for the awful landscapes of postwar London. Gaining a spot in 1952 on the Royal Faculty of Artwork, the place his contemporaries included Frank Auerbach (who remarked on Cunningham’s work as being “filled with nervous life”), Cunningham mixed an illustrator’s facility with a solitary, brooding creativeness to provide his arresting and desolate visions.
Within the portraits that opened the present, the sitters’ expressions are largely extinguished by shadow, leaving solely the deserted chaos of their faces, leveled to the naked proportions of skulls seen in neighboring work. (Elsewhere, Darkish Sheep Cranium, from 1957, might be a face screaming by means of the gloom: human and beast alike turning into frail mirrors of their mutual decay.) The powder-white face and reddish nostril in Man in Shadow, 1953, counsel a leering clown; the options of Crimson Portrait of Frank Bowling, 1956–57, look virtually to have been scorched away totally.
Cunningham’s different preoccupation emerged within the light-drenched second gallery: animals, proven each alive and as carcasses. The frenzied pack depicted in Canines, 1956, echoes the work of Francis Bacon with its feral vitality and bloody scrawls; Two Hanging Chickens, 1956, portrays the lifeless fowl in viscera pinks and feathered-white brushstrokes. Upstairs, one discovered a extra pathetic if no much less unsettling temper struck by Canine, 1953, with its lifeless button-black eyes and frantic brushstrokes creating the impact of mangy mottled fur.
Although Cunningham was primarily based within the British capital for many of his life, visits to the Continent impressed a few of his most somber, haunting work. 4 Canines, Spain, 1955, pits darkish canine shapes in opposition to a blazing orange background, packing into the portray’s floor all of the torrid warmth and exhaustion of a dying afternoon. Canines in Daylight, Spain, 1955, appears extra like a homicide scene. Paint is spattered as if from exploded arteries; coagulating washes of maroon seep by means of the canvas.
On the gallery’s sprawling higher flooring, the depth of the artist’s morbid motifs—together with fish heads and squid, flanks of lamb in an abattoir, but extra skulls—grew to become considerably dulled by means of infinite reiteration. However in Cunningham’s lonely, piercing portraits of particular person sitters, he captures a form of mercy. In Despair, 1956, a unadorned lady sits hunched in a chair, the despondency of her flesh etched in deep black strains and a palette that’s virtually ashen. The determine in Lady Trying Down, 1956, arms tightly clasped beneath her breasts, seems to be hanging onto herself for expensive life.
After declining full membership within the London Group in 1960, Cunningham stopped exhibiting altogether in 1967, by no means explaining why. (In response to his widow Bobby Hillson, “he simply didn’t need to discuss issues that actually mattered to him.”) Nevertheless, he continued to color in a makeshift studio in a former Battersea chapel, stored firm by an array of skulls and his personal dogged perseverance.
Repeatedly, we sense the artist’s life drive fusing along with his enigmatic imagery. One can virtually really feel, within the vibrating physicality of the work, an unnerving sympathy between artist and topic. Take Previous Man Smiling, from as early as 1953: outsize nostril like a commedia dell’arte masks, mouth leering as if at some personal joke or piece of dangerous information, dissembling a secretive form of inwardness.