Ceri Hand Gallery, Liverpool
9 April - 22 May 2010
Reviewed by: Jonathan Griffin
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, asserts the press release of Eleanor Moreton's exhibition, many Austrian homes would have contained a portrait of the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph. So too in Moreton's show: Austrian Man (2008) hangs in one corner of the gallery, alongside Austrian Man (Blue Tie) (2008), a rustic-looking figure with an oak leaf embroidered on his chest. Despite this allusion to the domestic, and despite the exhibition's title 'Im Wartezimmer' (which translates as 'In the Waiting Room'), the show does not attempt to create an intimate atmosphere in its lofty, industrial space. Instead, it leads us on a tour through a suite of images, a narrative that swirls us into the dark centre of a hybridised personal and collective subconscious, and to a shocking denouement.
It begins innocently enough. Temporary walls in the centre of the gallery force us to circle one way or the other around the room. Without thinking, I went clockwise, to find two small paintings of a man and a woman in traditional middle-European costume, hung close together. Moreton's painting technique, working from photographs in broad brushstrokes and in subtly cohesive colour schemes, seems in this case to place the figures impossibly far away, as if remembered only dimly. The subsequent paintings on my circuit, the portraits of Franz Joseph and the wearer of the blue tie, loom much closer. This may be down to Moreton's stylised interference with the original images; Franz Joseph finds his face abbreviated into a cartoony pile of greenish lumps, while his companion loses half his features to a shadow of opaque duck-egg blue that floods from the rim of his hat to his chin. These studies remain, however, recognisable (though debased and humiliated) as familiar, generic images, even if their original histories and significances have been half-abandoned.
Moving onwards, I came to an entrance to the central, inner space - four walls, open at the roof, and painted on their interior a shade of (possibly Prussian?) blue. Immediately, it hit you: the green-grey face of the most notorious Austrian man of recent memory, Josef Fritzl. There are other paintings in the space - two dainty portraits of a seated 19th century dandy, a man in a floppy trilby and an abstract mass of forms that slowly reveals itself to be a vase of flowers - but instantly, only one really matters. Unlike the previous two paintings of Austrian men, Austrian Man (JF) (2009) has not been deflated by humorous interventions, but is painted directly in loose, wet paint that dribbles slightly over his brow. This is the dense, cold nucleus around which the rest of the exhibition revolves - perhaps even too dense and too cold for the gaseous debris of half-acknowledged meaning that flies in its orbit.
The 19th century dandy, for instance, is the radical Austrian architect Adolf Loos, mysteriously waving a third hand in one painting and blinking through watery eyes in the second. The painting of the trilby-hatted man, as its title - Freudsack (2010) - confirms, is none other than the world's most famous psychoanalyst and Austria's most influential son. The still life, Fur Waldmuller 1 (2010), is a twilit painting of remarkable virtuosity. Together, these are the finest paintings in the show, but with Herr Fritzl glaring at us from the adjacent wall, it is hard to abandon oneself to their pleasures. Perhaps that is the idea; perhaps his presence provides layers of uncomfortable complexity that would be absent were he not included. It is as impossible to guess as it is to ignore him.
Hurrying out of the room, I was confronted by another bespectacled (though eyeless) portrait of Freud, and two paintings titled Red Couch and Green Couch (both 2010). Unnervingly, they both resemble rumpled, post-coital beds. There is a sense that, in surrendering ourselves to the analytical couch, we have been ravished by this cast of Austrian patriarchs. But why Austria? What significance does the country have for the artist, beyond the historical? We are not told, but are instead confined to the waiting room of meaning while we hear the men going about their business on the other side of the door.
Jonathan Griffin is a freelance writer living in London and Los Angeles