It’s not often that you hear ‘pleasure’ mentioned in the context of contemporary art these days. Somehow, in these times of refugee crises, the rise of various forms of radical nationalism, the discourse of politics degenerating into an exchange of insults, the natural environment becoming less and less natural, if not gradually destroyed, and the gulf between rich and poor ever increasing, the notion of contemporary art being a source of pleasure (rather than critique or reflection) seems unfashionable, untopical and, well, generally unrealistic in terms of the world we actually inhabit. And these days we want art to speak to that world. Listen to so-called learned sense about art today and you’ll find yourself pounded by the distinct opinion that finding pleasure in art is old-fashioned, even immoral. Anyone who visited this year’s Documenta learned that. And, to an extent, it’s probably the impression that you’re left with after reading magazines like this one too.
So it’s as much disconcerting as it is refreshing to witness ideas of pleasure playing a central role in Israel-born, Copenhagen-based painter Tal R’s ongoing Sexshop paintings. And what exactly is his idea of pleasure? A closed door. At least that’s the message you get when you stand in front of The pleasure (2017), which offers the viewer the aforementioned (firmly closed) double door – its four glowing, triangular hinges looking like a set of cartoon animal teeth – parked in the middle of a yellow wall.
That’s pretty much it for this vision of gratification. A line of fleshy pink rectangles below the wall, followed by green, blue and red stripes, might indicate the beginnings of a carpet or a garishly coloured pavement and street – at least they generally seem to suggest the intersection of one plane and another. Then there’s a stripe of green above the wall. It might indicate a roof on top of it or a garden behind: it’s impossible to divine which. And there’s a stripe of blue above the green. Sky. Perhaps. For as much as the painting as a whole invites you to extend its presence into a more plastic realm, every time you attempt to reconstruct it as a representation of an ‘actual’ space – to locate yourself in relation to it – that whole seems to resist, insisting instead that it is what it is: a series of flat planes of colour divided, occasionally, by vertical lines. As it settles back down, you realise that here is no ‘in front’, no ‘behind’, no ‘roof ’ and no ‘floor’, merely pigment attached to canvas in a way that describes a series of geometric forms. Anything else is not so much on the canvas as in your head.
Indeed, despite the specific reference of their title, the Sexshop paintings – most of which describe building facades and shop- fronts – are works that might sit reasonably comfortably in a world of geometric abstraction as practised by turn-of-the-century artists such as Piet Mondrian or Hilma af Klint. There are hints too of the Colour Field paintings of someone like Morris Louis. All in all, The pleasure, like most of the others in this series, is a bit of a tease: it offers you something, takes it away and then urges you to seek it out again. Space is hinted at only so that its absence can be revealed, just as the conventional sexshop offering aims at accelerating libidos via various approximations – but never realisations – of the thing itself.
In that respect, it’s important that Tal R’s subjects – as captured in works such as Bar Farao, Paris Chic and Dirty Dick (all 2017) – are existing locations (over the last three years the artist claims to have executed 30 paintings and 100 drawings of sex shops). It’s possible to visit them and judge to what extent the artist has captured the detail or the spirit of their bricks, their mortar, their glass and their funky lettering. But ultimately, to make the comparison between represented and representation would be to miss the point.
“You never really look into the sex shop, because what happens inside is private,” the artist says when we meet in his Copenhagen studio. I remark that it’s interesting that he should say that – positioning his subject matter as some sort of zone of privacy that’s hidden in plain sight – given the extent to which the interest in art these days is caught up in associations with celebrity culture: about the person and personality of the artist.
He misunderstands me.
“I’ll be honest about something,” he replies swiftly, “I never go into sex shops, I never go into strip joints. I never go into gay clubs, swinger clubs...”
I clarify that my remark was about the way in which people view art in general, rather than the specifics of his own relationship to his subject matter. And yet in a way, his quick denial proves the point. Private space is a hazy concept in an age of extreme mediation and equally extreme surveillance. What’s interesting about the Sexshop paintings is not that they represent a private space – they don’t – so much as they create it.
In a curious way, seeing the rainbow-coloured (literally, in the case of Babylon, 2017, which includes one such variegated arc) Sexshop works in a group is like seeing a lineup of the exteriors of all the themed casinos in Las Vegas: beyond the promise of pirates at Treasure Island or the mysteries of Ancient Egypt at the Luxor that’s offered up by the three metres or so of fantasy on their facades, inside they are all about the same thing – getting you to spend money. Similarly, each Sexshop painting is a titillation of your imagination, making you think that you are someplace else.
‘The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery,’ the British painter Francis Bacon once said, and to a degree this is what Tal R’s Sexshop paintings seek to do. “Last year I started thinking about the role of the artist and painting,” he says. “That there’s always, in every painting you could say, a kind of mystery: there’s something not spoken. Something just left the painting and you always think that the artist, he controls the cut, he knows what just left the painting, he knows the mystery, but actually it’s not like that. If you are working like that – thinking that you are the public master, controlling all the elements in a painting – it’s always going to be a benign, stupid painting. I think the reason why you paint and you do art in general is that there is also a mystery for you.”
Tal R: Sexshops is on show at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road, London, through 20 December. Academy of Tal R can be seen from 14 October through 21 January at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
From the October 2017 issue of ArtReview