Half Awake

This article originally appeared on corridor8.co.uk May 2022.

Activities like writing, painting and drawing clarify thinking. The artist does not necessarily know what they are going to say or do before they do it, their reasons become manifest as the work is produced. As painter and critic David Salle tweeted ‘Most painting is a conversation between continuity and novelty’. With this in mind, Half Awake is an apt title for a painting exhibition that deals with the liminal spaces between reality and the imagined. Joe O’Rourke and Parham Ghalamdar are both artists with mature practices that explore the boundaries of image making. As you enter the gallery you are confronted by O’Rourke’s ‘What’s really going on?’ (2020) – this is a question that you will inevitably return to as you survey the exhibition.

The show has been curated by Matt Retallick, emphasising the similarities between the pair; with works of comparable scale that complement each other beautifully. Ghalamdar and O’Rourke represent a snapshot of painting today, in simultaneously referencing styles of the past, but not adhering to any one dominant style. It feels like looking at the possibilities of painting influenced by the real world during a dream state. Both artists’ work could be described as figurative, any observational elements of the works in this exhibition have been supplanted by invented motifs and imagery reconstructed by the artists.

The exhibition has been hung where interleaved works from both artists converse with, and play off one another. Without wall labels it’s up to you as the viewer to ascertain the author of the work. It’s unusual to visit an exhibition where the artists’ work is intentionally presented in such a way that you become an art world Columbo, looking for clues as to the author of the specific work. In some ways it feels like a game, one where you are looking at messages written in code to find meaning. Works reference the contemporary concerns of surveillance, and slick AI deep fake technology along with historical artistic movements such as cubism and surrealism, and artistic techniques like collage, process and painterly interventions. The game of piecing together the exhibition is unsettling, but in a good way.

A white cube gallery space is filled with a collection of brightly coloured paintings of different sizes on canvas an paper.

Installation image of Half Awake. Image courtesy Bankley Studios and Gallery.

With this in mind, the exhibition leads the viewer in several unexpected directions. I wasn’t anticipating being so challenged by the combinations of the artists’ work. The viewing experience  became an ongoing pursuit of seeking the style and motifs that were individual to each artist. Several times I became unstuck and had to retrace my steps through my mental model of who each artist was. The way artworks are intermingled in this exhibition reminds me of the ‘scramble suit’ in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, whereby the suit conceals the identity of the wearer by constantly shifting its appearance, collaging together sampled fractional representations of various people. The section of the exhibition where this idea of interpolation is taken to its extreme is a large wall dominated by many works on paper by both artists. It’s hard to look at this cluster of works made between 2020-2022 and not reflect on the influence of the pandemic. Works on this wall feel tentative and diaristic. Secrets, confessions, plans for the future. Here, in spite of the horror of contemporary life it is refreshing to see possibilities explored. As Amy Sillman notes in Further Notes on Shape, ‘Can we really afford not to think about composition now, when we seem surrounded by the decomposition and deformation of bodies and social structures? We are in a time of political catastrophe, destitution, doom. We live in a heightened sense-time that feels like it’s both spinning backward and outward simultaneously, when the terror and tragic palpability of political events and illness provokes a constant sense of precipice, of exhaustion, the rattling of ongoing crisis.’ Within this, finding ways to construct your own vision and worldview is important. There are strong parallels between the artists’ work that operate as portals into artificial worlds, presenting alternate realities. Whilst these works aren’t painted as a societal critique, they are a product of our time.

O’Rourke is concerned with how imagery interacts with the materiality of the painted surface, supplementing it with a veritable kitchen sink of materials. The paintings are made up of myriad elements including fragments of text, fabrics, papers, wood, plastic bags, vinyl floor and artificial grass. ‘Near to nowhere’(2021) plays with trompe l’oeil effects with a real face flannel stained to appear in shadow against a cubist influenced shifting perspective. Elsewhere the materials are sublimated within the surface of the painting, ‘Inside-out’(2021) models a complex network of materials and techniques. ‘Hover Hotel’ (2022) reminds me of a slick background from a ‘90s anime with it’s crisp manga style megastructure foregrounded against and scumbled painterly ground.

Ghalamdar layers imagery that blends and combines into new forms. The surface of the works show evidence of the artist’s hand building them up over time. The colours are acrid and chemical, and the invented objects are sharp, but blur and de-coalesce into one another and the painted surface. ‘Low-budget props for a homosexual Iranian vampire Sci-fi film’ (2021) exemplifies these shifting layers of bold colour that construct a mysterious stage set. Ghalamdar’s works are lovingly made by hand but the digital world hangs over them like a spectre. Their painting feels influenced by how an AI might compose an image. ‘Coterie of the alchemists’ (2021) is perhaps a representation of the artist; three heads branching from a tree wearing various hats against a continuous photographic studio back drop. There is gravity and weight, but sometimes not. There is logical arrangement and chaos in Ghalamdar’s work but none of this is mutually exclusive. The stage set of the paintings are recognisable, but in transition to something else.

Ultimately this exhibition is admirable not only for the standard of paintings, but the way in which the work of the two artists is interspersed. It raises interesting questions around authorship, subject and aesthetics. Both artists have their own identity and motivations but this exhibition invites the viewer to spend time considering their shared, and perhaps universal concerns. Half Awake shows the invigorating possibilities of future conversations filled with emotional and experiential intelligence.    

Half Awake ran from 15 April until 1 May 2022 at Bankley Studios and Gallery, Manchester.