PORTRAIT SERIES I
“THE DEVIL’S BOYFRIEND’S HAIRDRESSER”
A TENTATIVE INTERPRETATION BY LLOYD POLLAK
Paul Birchall’s paintings and drawings form a suite of cryptic and baffling symbolic fantasies which elude any unilateral and definitive reading, and I offer the reader the following interpretation in the humble certainty that it is both tentative and imperfect. However if it offers some point of entry into the meaning of the work, it will have served its modest goal.
In my opinion a cluster of about five images form the perfect introduction to Paul Birchall’s work. These paintings on canvas – “Is it you? Call me”, “Red Snapper”, “A Fish or two out of Water” and “Yoga for Fish” all portray athletic muscular young men in the privacy of their own domestic environments where they have withdrawn to confront their demons in solitude. The presence of fish lends these paintings a bizarre surreal flavour, and as the fish looms large in Birchall’s work, all viewers will wonder what such fish represent.
The fish form part of the complex symbolical apparatus that underpins the artist’s images of gay men in search of self-integration and harmony. The fish is the object of their quest, and it conflates a variety of meanings. The fish, by association with the Christian symbol, is emblematic of spiritual salvation but, because of its elongated penile shape, it is identified with the phallus, and becomes a symbol of the homosexual quest for erotic fulfillment. By synthesizing a sexual symbol with a spiritual symbol, Paul intimates that his dramatis personae seek more than mere carnal gratification, and makes the fish stand for the fully integrated homosexual self blessed with self-knowledge, confidence and maturity
To catch the fish is to realize one’s potential, and attain spiritual and sexual well being. However the fish is elusive, and its element, the sea, is the site of jeopardy, the space of risk, storm, shipwreck and drowning. To fish is to court danger, and thus it becomes an heroic act.
Dreams, in which the self attempts to come to terms with aspects of the personality hitherto experienced as unacceptable, often take place by the sea. The sea is the space of revelation, the space of primal confrontation with the unconscious: the space where our forbidden desires and repressed yearnings reveal themselves. To brave the sea is to face the dark side of oneself.
Life in Birchall’s paintings becomes a journey or quest, as it is in epic literature and fairy tales, and this journey is made in a boat, its goal is to land the fish, and its destination is what lies over the sea, the shore around Table Mountain which becomes a Promised Land.
Birchall’s Self-Portrait as a Fisherman” commemorates spiritual and sexual apotheosis. Like big game hunting, landing a mighty fish betokens a rugged Hemingwayesque masculine prowess. If the fish represents erotic fulfilment, the fact that catching it entails a trial of strength between man and beast, force and intellect further elevates the fish into a symbol of self-mastery. The self-portrait thus celebrates a triumphant resolution of the quest for the true self.
The ignominy of those who lack the courage to confront their unknown other, and brave the sea, is depicted in macabre Gothic fantasies like the two “Presenting the Pot” charcoal drawings. In both the artist conjures up dingy, claustrophobic, nocturnal streetscapes where harsh spotlit pools of light illumine hairy, pot-bellied, naked men ostentatiously displaying themselves in flagrant poses. The bright ship windows emphasize the notions of commerce and availability.
The dominant figure in both drawings is a naked male equestrian astride a headless, double-reared horse with a teapot reposing on the horse’s rump. Such double- spouted teapots occur in all Birchall’s images of sexual confusion, and they are clearly dysfunctional for, without a handle, they cannot pour and discharge their fluid. They are accompanied by teacups without handles which are similarly anti-utilitarian. The teapot synthesizes gender symbols: the twin spouts rise up like the erect male member, while the swollen belly of the pot constitutes a classic Freudian uterine symbol.
The headless double-reared horse further reinforces the sexual hybridity implicit in the pot. The horse, an immemorial incarnation of primitive masculine aggression and libido, is effectively immobilized as both pairs of hooves face each other, making the horse an embodiment of paralysis. Secondly the horse is feminized. Its tail is braided into a plait: one hoof disappears into a high-heeled shoe and the beast also wears fussy suspenders.
The Devil’s Boyfriend’s Hairdresser” and “Some of us are looking at the Stars” also seem to deal with this loss of masculine primacy. The salon in the first drawing is a temple to sterile narcissism, filled with traditional emblems of vanity such as mirrors, combs and curled hair. Male hair, as in the biblical story of Samson, provides outward proof of male strength, and any attempt to tamper with it, such as resorting to curlers, seems to signify renunciation of masculinity and all its possibilities and the acceptance of marginal status.
The young men in the paintings I mentioned at the start, are all mesmerized by the phallic fish which represents their sexual orientation and its implications, both joyous and traumatic. They are confronting their sexual destinies, and summoning up the inner resources they need to rise to this occasion, for the fish is a ‘fish out of water’, with all that that implies of maladjustment and a hostility. The gasping displaced fish thus becomes an analogue of the hostile elements implicit in the homosexual predicament. The men grasp the fish: they wish to remain true to their instincts, but, even as they embrace their sexuality, they realize that it is painfully problematic.
These paintings introduce Birchall’s leitmotif - the painful process of homosexual self-adjustment and the struggle to achieve freedom and ease. It might appear that such a theme would appeal only to a small, specialized audience, but this is not true, for the artist’s greatest artistic strength is his ability to distil images which endow his themes with all-embracing relevance. His portrayals of erotic diffidence, dread, shame and rapture, will prompt identification on the part of everyone who has experienced such emotions, irrespective of their sexual orientation, for Birchall’s art transcends its origins, and attains universal dimensions.
The artist achieves such resonance because he introduces a huge gap between the magically sophisticated elegance of his images, and the raw messy personal emotions that originally inspired them. Usually this distance eliminates any hints of the supposed brutal carnality of gay life, and enables Birchall to handle his homosexual themes with humanity, wit and charm. Although Birchall’s inspiration is grounded in trauma, he is a lyrical fantasist who transmutes his pain into delicate captivating poetic statements, stylized dream-like fantasies that hark of circus and carnival and radiate whimsy, drollery and burlesque.
This gulf is most apparent in what I call Birchall’s Carnival of the Animals, a suite of 11 high-spirited comic paintings where paunchy animal-headed men, dressed in motley, cavort by the sea. Their diapered pants and conical caps establish playful poetic overtones of Picasso’s saltimbanques, Watteau’s Commedia dell Arte figures and Longhi’s Venetian carnivals.
Motley is the livery of jesters, and the jester is associated with Youth, Love and Folly. He is the butt of comedy, a fool enslaved by libido and unruly instincts. Birchall’s jesters are animal-headed, and like the donkey-headed Bottom in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, they represent man enthralled by the baser passions.
These jester-animals represent conflicting forces within the psyche. The active aggressive masculine force sports red motley, while his passive alter ego – a mincing spinster – wears grey and a nun’s cowl indicative of sexual distaste.
Although the action is set by the sea, the comic duo are marooned on massive granite blocks reminiscent of tomb stones and the marble slabs seen in paintings of the Raising of Lazarus and the Resurrected Christ stepping out of his sarcophagus. This labyrinth of blank slabs imprisons the jesters, and epitomizes a living death of sexual denial.
The jesters aspire to the sea of erotic possibility, but they can only access it via a plank. The plank doubles as diving board, but as it also recalls the gangplank mutineers are forced to walk in tales of piracy, it can spell liberty and salvation or death by drowning. To take the plunge and dive into the ocean of sexual risk thus becomes a courageous espousal of risk, a brave leap into the void.
In this conflict of the self, the adventuresome archetype urges his timid alter ego to make the leap of faith either by stern admonition or by bullying fisticuffs. Alternatively they gaze spellbound as the phallic fish leaps through hoops like a perfectly trained circus animal. This is wish fulfilment, an enactment of their fantasy of making Eros act in congruence with their will.
In these images the artist transfigures his experiences into outré vaudevillian extravaganzas where the poignancies of sexual bewilderment are offset by a sense of rollicking camp. The harlequins behave like wayward chorus boys, miming astonishment and dismay with an outrageously hammy thespian exuberance.
The allusions to circus and menagerie free the image of any overt homosexual reference, so that the capering jesters seem to reflect the nervousness we all experience when the thunderously disruptive Gods of sexuality turn our lives topsy-turvy.
These mischievous Gods of the groin triumph in the hilarious “Gardens Centre Rooftop Formation Moondancers”, a lusty Saturnalian romp replete with pagan references to Walpurgisnacht and Christian allusions to the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Standing on the harvest of fish they have wrested from the sea, a grotesque corps de ballet of raunchy, paunchy aging men celebrate their empowerment in a wild triumphal dance.
Unpretentious artist avoids pigeonholing
Raised in northern England,artist Paul Birchall left London for Cape Town in 2004 and has created a wide array of art ever since,
ARTIST Paul Birchall comes across as a kind, softly-spoken and culturedman – his house in Cape Town and lifestyle certainly appear to reflect that.
However, when joking about yobbos and chavs with him, he mentions that he had a very similar background, growing up in a working class area of northern England.
There, growing up gay either meant “one wanted to wear women’s clothes, molest children or become a hairdresser”.
As for religion, that was “just the stories we were told at school before singing a hymn in assembly. I was once made to mow the church lawn – never went back.”
At 18 he left home one day “without telling anybody”. Paul’s travels took him to the south of England, where he joined a punk band and discovered his sexual identity away from “the bigoted community I grew up in”.
The Dogems, for whom he played keyboard, turned out to be pretty popular. “In 1978 we got to play with all the well-known acts of the time such as The Dead Kennedys and The Piranhas. Punk was pretty big at the time and we were even once number two on the Indie charts, just below Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. John Peel once said our BBC session with him was one of his favourites.”
The band broke up after two years when their record label, Criminal Records, went bankrupt. Nearly three decades later Blackbox covered one of their most famous songs, Lord Lucan is Missing, and used it as part of their set at Glastonbury and other European music festivals.
After his stint as a gay punk rocker, Paul’s travels took him all over the world, and jobs including telesales, dental technology, selling petrol, working in restaurants, and even selling boomerangs in Australia.
“I had no idea how to throw them, but had to fake it every time a tourist asked.”
After several relationships and a life-changing trip to India, Paul returned to art school. There he met his partner, Ziggy, and they began visiting South Africa as part of Ziggy’s studies.
“We officially moved here in 2004 after I was retrenched from my job at a commercial art studio in London. When I first arrived in Cape Town it was hard since I didn’t know anyone.
“I was lucky to connect with Jill Trappler, who has this fantastic ability to connect to people. Through her I managed to meet other people and those connections grew.”
When describing his art he appears very certain of himself. “I don’t think what I do is that unique. I work in a great variety of different ways. I hate the idea that I might get trapped into a style, so I try to vary what I do from one exhibition to the next. I’m not sure it does me any favours, as the art world loves to pigeonhole people, and anyway I get bored with a way of working and enjoy moving around. It keeps my attention fresh.
“I generally tend to work on bodies of work, developing a theme. These are as varied as the techniques I use. I suppose what’s important in my work thematically is often narrative – putting together juxtaposed imagery that allows other people to create their own narratives around the images I make. I also love humour in my work, and the ability not to allow myself to get too serious on a theme that might have serious overtones.”
A recent exhibition by Paul consisted of animated assemblage, which featured boxes composed of found objects on the subject of gay men who had met during military service.
“During both world wars, many young men joined the armed forces to get away from home and to be in the company of other men. This exhibition was dedicated to all gay men who lived lives that were, at that period in time, illegal and unacceptable to the societies they came from. Yet still, against the odds, they managed to find friendship, love and companionship in the company of other men.”
Religion also comes across very strongly in his work. However, no one seems to have taken offence yet. “I haven’t had any bad feedback on my religious content but maybe they never get to see it. I hope that there is enough whimsy in the work to take out the hard bite.
“I’m not religious at all but it’s so much a part of art history and I find the symbolism and iconography fascinating. Figurative paintings always create this other world that doesn’t belong to me. As much as they might reflect the world, they are somehow not of it – the stranger the depiction, the more fascinating it becomes. We are bombarded with images of reality and I find paintings and painting a fantastic medium.”
Paul’s latest exhibition, Statuesque: Still Lives of the Gods and Saints, is now on at Rust en Vrede gallery in Durbanville. It consists of 18 small paintings, each containing various themes. St Joan sees Minnie Mouse looking very frivolous and tied to a peg amid a pyre of matchsticks. It seems to somewhat subvert the notion of suffering and martyrdom. Narcissus features a plastic pelican falling in love with its own reflection, and Food of the Gods initially looks like a very ordinary still-life of cup and jug, but it contains a tale in the reflection which is sexually subversive to the image.
Almost all the paintings contain very small objects reflected in shiny surfaces.
“The idea of painting something very small on a larger-thanlife scale appealed to me. I love the way it distorts the world you see in it,” Paul says.
“In the first paintings it reflects the objects already in the painting. Later, it reflects back on the viewer, showing the world of the artist – his studio or house. That is interesting because it plays with the formal space in a painting.
“Normally a painting might present a world the artist constructs or represents – the viewer looks one way into the painted world away from their own world. However, by including the mirror or other reflective objects, it allows the viewer to go deeper into the painting. It represents a space on their side of the image. I found painting the reflections often the best part.”
The statuary paintings come from Paul’s visit to Liverpool and the Walker art gallery. “I have a collection of photographs of classical sculpture that I have taken from all over Europe – I loved the light in the sculpture rooms.
“As you’ll see, the title for my series comes from the actual pieces in the collection. I have for the last few years occasionally made a small traditional still life painting between other things I have been working on. They have generally sold straight from the easel.
“I decided I wanted to paint a series of small paintings with no particular theme. I decided that if a theme came out of them then that was fine, but there should be no preconceived reason to make them other than to stimulate my want to paint and put bread on the table. “However, once started, things start to happen. I painted some tiny little plastic figures that somebody gave me and set them up as a narrative of St Sebastian surrounded by reflective objects. I started to become interested in the challenges of traditional depiction of shiny objects – glass and light.
“The next one was a quirky picture of a plastic Minnie Mouse as St Joan. I then tried to avoid setting up specific narratives and in the end played with the titles to link them together. There seemed to be a statuesque quality to all the figures and this I felt needed reference to classical themes. It seemed to gel with the way they were painted somehow – very traditionally.”
Asked what kind of statement he wants to make, he simply answers: “None. They are what they are – small paintings I’ve had fun making.”
Cape Times – Monday April 11, 2005
Cheery exhibits entertain
Exhibitions: Paul Bircahll, Inge du Plessis and Ann Gadd at the AVA Gallery until April 16.
Review by Melvyn Minnaar
Sometimes, just when the art world seems to wear itself an all viewers down with all that oh-so-serious stuff, along comes a cheerful autumn outing like this.
None of the three exhibitors will probably complain if their work is described as “entertaining”.
In all three cases, although unrelated, there is much to please and to amuse. And, let’s face it, there are plenty of illustrative skills to admire. Bircahll’s curious narratives about boyfriends, hairdressers, fisherman, fish and dancing on the Gardens Centre roof cannot but engage and tickle the nosy viewer. There is a kind of goofy, swashbuckling way to his campy visual tales, and not just a touch of wit – the kind of which the New Yorker magazine cartoons excel.
Inge du Plessis’ paintings too are meant to tease the viewer into a story or two. The “before and after” moment capture is for the onlooker to decide – it is a cheery, creative game. And well painted too.
Ann Gadd’s word games are perhaps not as subtle, but she brings a great deal of off-the-wall humour to her bold, bright, in-your-face playful pictures, which make their mark and find their significance somewhere between graffiti and clever cartooning. Hers, like the others, are artworks one would gladly buy to hang on your study wall.
Cape Times - Delightful Exhibition
Playful, personal work has sharp edge.
Exhibition: Peter Clarke, Paul Birchall and Eris Silke at AVA Gallery, until Friday.
By Melwyn Minnaar
A week or three ago at a Christie’s auction in Ney York, lot 18 , a cabinet with a mirror, shells, a butterfly wing, and other curios by the artist Joseph Cornell, titled Pharmacy 1943, was sold for $ 3,8 million.
It was a world record for the artist and significant because that very auction signalled the collapse of the recent outrageous boom in some art prices.
Commentators dwelled on the irony that Cornell, who died in 1972, was this high price auctions’ star, he worked in miniature and constructed his assemblages form throw away trinkets and cuttings.
The same power that elevated Cornell’s magical little boxes to such appealing art underpins the art of Peter Clarke’s delightful exhibition which he whimsically calls Second Childhood.
Like Cornell, Clarke’s art is so densely personal, so poetic and inventively introspective that you feel swept along by the encased sentiment. It’s a playfulness that doesn’t shun irony either.
How pleasurable too – and complimentary in their own camp way – are Paul Birchall’s Re-turning Heroes upstairs on the gallery balcony.
Literally alive with movement and even a mini video, these are wall assemblages that catch your eye with gleeful caricature, send-ups and funky gismos. Pure, playful cheeriness to admire for wit and suss.
Birchall is no mean draftsman and his etchings, aquatints of saucy moustache-‘n-muscle men, drenched in whopper nostalgia, offer a delightful twist to his saucy story.
Clarke, who is turning a healthy, creative 80 next year, can spin (and write, especially, in that gorgeous hand) some smart yarns. Some are on the wall here; others unfold from the meticulous collage-foldouts he clearly seems to take such inventive pleasure in.
Although, explaining the title, he talks rather frivolously about having the freedom, at his age, to be “taking chance, doing things, letting things happen, different, unexpected, going in other directions, changing course when so inclined”, there is a critical , sharp edge in the way Clarke sees, observes and comments visually.
For all their graphic elegance and tactile presence (like books or correspondence one would treasure), his artworks are much denser than even he would imagine. But then a good, experienced storyteller can hardly tell how much they set off the imagination of an intrigued audience.
Eris Silke, of course has been dwelling in such gothic tales for yonks. Her recent crunchy, heavy and forceful paintings and mixed-media imagery live up to a solid reputation. The title work, The Prince is a vivid and remarkably fresh (if that is the right word) confirmation of her visual thinking
Website of South African Artists