What took the galleries so long to get it, asks Waldemar Januszczak
I am writing this advice to myself, as well as to the son I don’t have. Having spent many an article in the 21st century so far complaining about the becalmed state of British art, insisting it was in a rut, moaning that nothing interesting was going on, I find myself realising this week that I have been completely wrong. Again. Paul Noble’s show at the Whitechapel gallery is simply astonishing: one of those rare arrivals of an important artist that does to the aesthetic senses what a thump in the stomach does to a man’s guts in a boxing ring.
Noble works in pencil on paper — which doesn’t sound particularly thrilling, does it? But go and see what he does with this pencil on paper. The extraordinary spectacle of his art forced an array of the most primitive noises out of me. Grunts. Wows. Giggles. Huhs. These inchoate noises were instinctive oral reactions to the unimaginable amount of effort and perseverance that went into the creation of Noble’s absurdly intricate hand-drawn panoramas. On the most basic of all art levels — the first level, manual skill — his efforts are heroic.
The chief subject of these extraordinary panoramas is a fictitious city that Noble calls Nobson Newtown. Every picture describes a different corner of this mys- terious conurbation. In this show, we see Nobson Newtown’s town centre, its main shopping mall and what seems to be a ruined cemetery on the town’s outskirts. Working in minute detail, piling detail onto detail, adding, adding, adding, until the picture is the size of a wall, Noble transforms the small and humble medium of pencil drawing into something vast, grand and dramatic, a transformation I don’t believe anyone in art has ever worked before.
Each drawing takes years to complete. Tiny termites employ comparable building procedures to erect their giant mud castles in the bush. It’s the transformation of the minute into the monumental, and it carries with it the rare magic of inconceivable effort. Medieval scribes had to adopt this ceaseless way of working in order to write and decorate the Book of Kells. Each of the huge panoramas is an action-packed scene unto itself, crammed with fascinating goings-on, yet part of a gigantic, apocalyptic whole.
My favourite of the three panoramas shown here is the spooky view of the town’s shopping mall, housed in what seems to be a former mosque, shaped like the Taj Mahal yet covered with deformed Jewish and Christian symbolism. What rich and pertinent Abrahamic confusion we have before us. There’s a warped pietà on the front of the mall, underneath which a grown-over inscription declares: “I Am the Resurrection.” It’s a peculiar sign to find hoisted above a shopping centre. However, for a society that turns its churches into loft apartments, a shopping mall in a mosque is par for the course.
The whole display maintains this determined balance between tiny comic effects and profound bigger meanings. Nobson Newtown’s puerile name betrays its laddish 1990s origins, but the town’s atmospheres are ancient, psychologically charged and somehow universal. Although the city has been built in a spectacularly bewildering array of styles — from ancient biblical to hard-edged computer modern — the feeling that all of it represents our own warped and confused kingdom of Mammon is impos-sible to shake off. I was in here for a couple of hours, lost in the addictive details of this worrying place, and would have stayed for many more had my eyesight held out.
Over at the Serpentine Gallery, Glenn Brown is also revitalising an ancient craft: in his case, the quintessential ancient artistic craft of oil painting. People like me keep writing it off. People like Brown keep coming along and proving people like me wrong. Brown’s thing is to make paintings based on reproductions of other artists’ pictures. When he finds a reproduction that interests him, he sets about producing another painting based on that reproduction. Intriguingly, he seems to favour crappy reproductions as his starting point, as if they offer more potential for transformation than good ones. In this show, he paraphrases Rembrandt, Fragonard, El Greco, Auerbach, de Kooning, Dali and a horrible science- fiction artist I know only from Brown’s tributes to him, Chris Foss. There’s some mild postmodern fun to be had identifying these sources, but that’s hardly the point. The painting of paint seems to be the point.
Brown works with a tiny brush and uses it to achieve minute detail in the manner of Salvador Dali. But where Dali was keen to paint convincingly warped realities, Brown ratchets up the whole mimetic procedure a few philosophical notches by questioning the illusionism of paint while simulta- neously achieving it. A typically tricky Brown manoeuvre — you need to concentrate here — is to use his tiny brush to paint an utterly convincing big brush stroke.
Although each of his paintings sports a different figurative subject, all seem to harbour the same wider abstract ambitions to question what oil painting means, how it works, what it achieves. When he reworks Rembrandt’s loving portrait of Saskia as Flora, with her podgy face and her hat full of flowers, he arrives at a harshly different effect from the original. In Death Disco, Brown’s Saskia gets a livid yellow background worthy of Van Gogh. Her flowers have been exaggerated into a rococo extra-vagance that is entirely un-Rembrandtesque. It ’s like a kitsch rococo cover version of a profound baroque original. These effects are sometimes too lurid to be pleasant. However hard I try, I cannot convince myself that the sci-fi imagery inspired by Foss belongs anywhere other than the cover of a Yes album. Yet this remains a brave and original show. Its project is to position painting at the heart of conceptual art, and it is largely successful.
I have seen Brown’s art before, of course. He was shortlisted for the Turner prize as far back as 2000. I’ve seen Noble’s drawings before, as well, at Tate Britain, around and about. Neither of these artists could be accused of making a debut now. But what neither has had before — what really counts here — is a proper one-person show in a worthwhile public gallery. Both the White- chapel and the Serpentine have been slow to give this kind of opportunity to British artists, preferring always, it seems to me, to display international artists discovered on the global biennale circuit. Don’t look over there. Look over here.