For Keith Coventry, the construction of a form of history painting has entailed a combination of a cultural aesthetic or art historical language of reference and social or even political subject matters. He rarely depicts specific events: instead he constructs, through his paintings and sculptures, an evocation of history that is rendered visible by the broadly social, cultural or political attitudes that he unlocks. Coventry’s 1938 (1994-2006) is an imposing 50-feet long, multi panel painting divided up into a grid of oblongs, the proportion of building bricks, painted to construct a drag colour chart predominantly of browns, reds and greens, creams and magnolias. For all its impressive size and scale the painting presents a fairly gloomy, even ominous, range of colour options. 1938 is constructed from a collection of pre-war commercial decorator’s paint that the artist unearthed. The painting is then, in one sense, an evocation of a particular period through its decorative backdrop: these are the colours that people chose to paint their walls at a certain time. It is a presentation of taste that has vanished not just because fashions come and go, but because the particular palette of colours presented by Coventry was destroyed by the course of the Second World War. This particular set of colour combinations now form a voice from a pre-war age that is far removed from us.
1938 stands comparison with Gerhard Richeter’s Colour Chart paintings (1966-1974) which take a view of history as purely a cultural construction – as a satire of the modularity and repetition inherent in Minimalist structures. Richeter here, as opposed to his photo paintings, leaves unstated any possible reading in terms of a corresponding social or political history. Coventry’s approach, using art historical references to address broader social or political issues of identity, could hardly be more different. Coventry’s idiosyncratic and personal project to engage with recent and past history through its cultural traces, encompasses an immense range of reference. His paintings and sculptures pit art history – Kasimir Malevich, International Modernism, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Raoul Dufy, Giorgio Morandi, Serge Poliakoff, Minimalism, Pop Art, Walter Sickert and Winston Churchill – with images of social and historical triumphs or of decadence and aberrant behaviour, from ancient Greece to racist hooliganism on football terraces, from the supposed perfection of a supermodel’s face to the crack den that is equally to be found on an inner city sink estate or in the rather more rarified environment of the apartment buildings of Albany on London’s Piccadilly. This is a potent stew, in which the collision between subject, image and process can sometimes seem unsettling or even ludicrous.
Many of the art historical references that Coventry deploys are defined by the Modernist idealism created as a result of Utopian impulses that sought to make the world a better place. Coventry plays with these beliefs and yet from his vantage point after Postmodernism he sees them to be misplaced or even misconceived and this ambivalence stimulates another troubling undercurrent to each work. Coventry’s Junk series 2002 is one instance of the slippery ambiguity. The Golden Arches of the McDonald’s fast food chain is one of the most readily identifiable signs of the contemporary landscape: the same the world over – from Bahrain to Guatemala, from the Czech Republic to Korea – it attests to the total reach of globalism. The Junk paintings depict fragments of this sign in a way that turns this graphic signifier of consumer desire and gratification into a dead ringer for a Russian Supremacist or Constructivist painting, turning on its head what would otherwise seem like a pop celebration of mass culture. Junk frames a narrative that suggests the Modernist Utopianism had the makings of corporate globalism inscribed within it – ‘I’m lovin’ it.’ Just as Junk gains its power from the complexities of a consumerist desire that has its apotheosis in obesity, landfill or incineration. His Supermodel Paintings (2002) ape Rodchenko’s Constructivism through images of two different sized interlocking circles that depict bodily proportion as a faceless and characterless perfection, where each painting looks pretty much the same and each supermodel, for all her glamour, is shown to be as insubstantial as the celebrity culture she embodies. The Utopianism that has as its core a belief in perfection or purity will always lead to disappointment.
Junk is situated in much the same terrain as Coventry’s Estate Paintings, made from 1992 onwards, which confront the Utopianism of Modernism with its mismanaged results: Britain’s crumbling inner-city estates and an all but invisible society that inhabits that landscape. The paintings derive from the plans of housing estates often displayed at their entrances, which Coventry has re-imaged in the style of Malevich’s Supremacist non-objectivity, framed as a Modernist relic. His Ontological Pictures (1999) isolate the arrows from these same housing estate plans that tell the viewer ‘YOU ARE HERE’, in such a way as to emphasise a sense of placelessness and alienation; pointing in all directions, the paintings suggest that one is nowhere and going nowhere.
Coventry’s vision of recent history is tempered with feelings of disillusion. For instance, he uses the trope of the Modernist monochrome not to depict purity, but its opposite. His White Abstracts, from 1994 onwards, take as their subject the colour and pageantry of Britain’s heritage – the royal family, a life guard, Cecil Beaton being knighted, a royal wedding, a state visit, a cucumber sandwich – but represent it as if all the colour and its relevance for contemporary society has drained away. Although this takes its queue from an anecdote from Sickert teaching Churchill how to paint, it collides the whitenesses of Modernism against an anti-Modernist world of aristocratic England – itself pilloried as a sham being without substance or colour.
Correspondingly, the Crack Pipes (1999) or Black Nudes, after Dufy (2004) exchange the white monochrome for black and achieve an equally dark vision that extends Coventry’s matrix or debased ideals and histories. Dufy trained his eyes to look away from the ugliness of the 20s and 30s and instead celebrated lightness, colour, elegant luxury and a life of ease. His paintings are seemingly easily won – their textures are thin, the painted gestures are light and calligraphic, the perfect corollary for subject matter. Dufy’s paintings have been re-presented by Coventry in thick, black, heavily work impasto replacing frivolity with the misery that exists on the other side of the Modernist vision of hope. In a similar manner Coventry’s Crack Pipe paintings mimic Morandi’s unswerving concentration of the still life, but exchange his subtly inflected arrangements of bottles and other domestic vessels for the paraphernalia of crack smoking. Epiphanies, along with the ideals and beliefs that they engender, are put into disarray by Coventry’s unforgiving act of recontextualisation.
The content of much of Coventry’s work tends to be drawn from the world of the crack addict and the celebrity junkie, fed by fast food, and entertained by vandalism. Echoes of Albany (2004-2006) is on the flipside to this narrative but is just as potent and unsettling. It consists of 31 paintings of narrative genre scenes from the history of Albany, a place that reeks the scent of tradition and privilege, and effectively provides barracks for the great and good. Hung tightly together in two rows emphasising rhythm and repetition, the series adopts Sickert’s creation of ‘echoes’, paintings that adapted and decontextualise Victorian illustrations. Coventry’s paintings follow Sickert in adopting a simply-red illustrational yet painterly style in which images of details on the building and its grounds mix with events from its history such as Mr Gundry Keeps the Police at Bay or past residents such as Disraeli, Lord Bulwer-Lytton, or Gladstone and Sir Squire Bancroft, with more recent goings on, such as the Picabia-esque rendering of visiting prostitutes in £300ers. All the paintings have the same rose-tinted colouring (equally comforting and bilious) and a handling of paint that makes the changes of gear from Smoke to Feeling Good imperceptible, cutting the ground away from the status-ridden traditional values of posh life and showing it to be both decrepit and decedent, but also perhaps, rather attractive – quite and echo.
in one sense, Coventry’s entire project – to construct a form of contemporary history painting – owes much to Sickert’s notion of the echo. However, unlike Sickert’s pictorial conception, Coventry’s acts of decontextualisation, re-presentation and reframing destabilise the varied subjects he employs. His compelling vision of the contemporary social landscape that is under his scrutiny frustrates any form of passive viewing. Coventry’s paintings are not windows into the world, but critical structures. His decision to glaze all his paintings creates a tangible barrier to easy sight that serves to take his paintings hostage – positioning them as sculpture and also forces the viewer to consider the complexities of their interwoven subjects in terms of a contemporary history painting, quite apart from any legible pictorial content that might survive such a process.