‘The Stuff of life By HOWARD JACOBSON’
modern painters magazine
‘It’s very much to do with wine, women and song, actually,’ Martin Fuller says as we stand looking at a wall of his latest work, newly hung above a sofa in his Brixton studio. As though I needed to be told.
I am not sure I have ever seen so much wine, women and song on a single wall. But if that suggests a surfeit of careless late-night bohemianising, a bon viveur admiring his own wasted hours, it belies the serious spirit of the paintings. As does, since I have not yet replied and he is not sure that I am keeping up, what he says about wine and women next. … ‘The stuff of life- and all the trouble that goes with it.’ Superficially a jest, what he conjures up is not the knowing, nudging world of men but opera, Mozart and Verdi, Cosi Fan Tutte and Rigoletto. That sort of ‘stuff; that sort of ‘trouble’.
He should design an opera. The turbulence he likes to paint is of an operatic order. Though they can be contemplative sometimes, locked away in a world of thought, the women in these canvasses are more frequently gestural, their movements under the sway of powerful if not always explicable emotion. A gouache I particularly like shows one woman throwing wine at another at the bar of what looks like a private arts club. lt is a passage of pure Mozartian comedy – so balletic is the throw, so angelically unheeding the recipient’s expression, and so magnificently careless the thrower’s flouncing departure.
Ask whether Fuller is painting his inner life or the external, vertiginous world of womanly extravaganza – women talking, women dancing, women swirling, women tilting, women intensely meeting one another’s stares or just as intensely avoiding them, women on the stage or the high wire, women coming in and going out, women sometimes spinning in mid-air for no other reason than that they possess the wherewithal to do so – and you realise at once that for him there is no such disjunction. ‘I dream about the sensation of making a mark,’ he tells me. ‘The sensuality of the mark . . . happy dreams. I very rarely have nightmares.’ No wonder, if it looks this good inside his head.
Though he likes you to see the drawing under the paint, as though the women have a double structure and demand to be rendered twice, there is no mistaking his love of paint. These are dense, rich, tactile paintings, delicious even when their colours are subdued, the paint in constant agitation, the brush, you feel, never satisfied or still. Whence exactly their sensuality, though, is sometimes a mystery. You take away a memory of sumptuous nudity, of voluptuousness whether in indolence or acrobatic performance, but when you return to the individual canvasses the women are not as vivi dly particular in the flesh as you remembered them. This is partly to be explained, I think, by cumulative effect. by the number of women who populate a painting and who, if you like, constitute a sort of compound woman. by turns quizzical, combative, decorative, deeply thoughtful, lewd, or so perfected in herself- inviolably spotlit, she can appear- as to be unknowable. But there is another reason why we feel a heat we cannot always point to in a passage of paint. What Fuller most intensely paints is the act of seeing itself. And in him seeing is a hot activity.
I do not wish this to sound intellectual, but on the other hand I do not wish it not to sound intellectual either. Fuller is a thinking painter. And as with anyone who thinks, he cannot avoid contemplation of the acts of the mind itself. What it is to see, what liberties are taken when one looks, where looking leaves one vis-a-vis one’s subject. or how far looking ultimately becomes one’s subject- these are important questions. Questions entailing no small delicacy in our day, either, when the object of one’s looking is a woman. What stops these lines of painterly enquiry becoming merely abstract in Fuller’s hands is the rapture with which he does look.
As it turns out, no observer of women could have less to reproach himself for. He tells a story of how as a boy he thought hard about sending away to Ellisdon and Son’s catalogue of novelties for glasses that gave you X-ray vision like Superman’s and enabled you to see through girls’ clothing. ‘But I knew they wouldn’t work.’ he laughs. ‘And besides, the imagination does it better.’
lt is entertaining to imagine the line drawings of women underneath the paint as a nod to the glasses he never bought. So long as that doesn’t give the impression that there is youthful prurience at work here. Of prurience of any sort there isn’t a trace. For all the intensity of the looking, there is no suggestion in any of these paintings that the painter, or the man, strains to see what should not be seen. Occasionally one can just about make out an onlooker at the edges of a painting, a little out of things but enjoying what he sees, an appreciator not a voyeur, and if not always a guest then certainly never a gatecrasher. But even when a looker-at and looker-on is not painted, you feel his presence, indeed you are sometimes invited to become such a person yourself. lt is the atmosphere of spectacle, partly, that creates this sensation of removal and appreciation. Spectacle, not because the actors are performing for one’s delectation – they are, even where they are on stage, engrossed in their own affairs – but because those affairs are rendered so vital and multifarious. Everything they do- and what they do is no more than be themselves- is interesting, mysterious. surprising, absorbing of one’s whole attention. And the world- recognizably contemporary at every turn – is their playground: bars. pubs. jazz clubs, drinking clubs, eating places, dance halls, green rooms, circuses, theatres. operas. sometimes places one cannot definitely locate and which look like carnivals of the mind, pageants and tableaux newly minted because they have to be, because all actual sites have been expended, have ceased to be adequate to the energy and ingenuity of the women who populate them.
They are all. if I read these paintings right, as it were amateurs, these women. They play or listen keenly to musical instruments, they dance, they sing, they swirl, they perform what it is they have to perform, but less out of any specific calling than the sheer exuberance of their being. Martin Fuller is quick to point out that as a painter he loves a rectangle: the surprise in all the flux, of an unexpected table or doorway or windowframe. A technical preference, simply. But the fact remains that these rectangles, however they are come by, serve as performance spaces – stages to dance on, staircases to ascend. mirrors to be seen through, boxes to be framed by. However intuitive the marks, they never show as mere flourishes in Fuller’s work. Time and again, what is clearly an inadvertency of the brush delivers a mark which ultimately, you are tempted to believe, is purposive. This is especially the case in the whirling spaces behind his figures’ heads. Is that a drip or splash of colour, or is it hair gone wild or obdurate. a hat. a horn, a halo even? I can show you a dozen instances of a woman seemingly wearing a cap and bells. a bridal veil. a crown, a diadem, an excrescence that wouldn’t go amiss on the devil. or such lambency as a saint might radiate. I am not entirely certain that I haven’t even espied a back-to-front baseball cap. But you could just as easily dismiss the lot as floating atoms of paint, something or other on the walls, a trick of light. a mote in the painter’s, or the viewer’s, eye.
What is not equivocal or imaginary is the spotlighting. In some paintings these spotlights are clearly theatrical. The woman treads the boards in the full glare of cone-shaped illumination. She inhabits light (whose shapely gauziness Fuller delights in painting) of theatrical necessity. But this same cone-shaped illumination – sometimes coming from common or garden ceiling lights, or sometimes an effect of strobe-lighting – can also envelope her when she is not on stage. She might catch just an edge of a barrage of it as she passes a bar; she might accidentally step into someone else’s; sometimes it seems to come down from heaven like divine refulgence, as though it means to carry her away, or as though it has just. like a gift from the gods. delivered her; but always, you feel. the cone is optical, the physical expression of Fuller’s seeing, the ophthalmic symbol of vision itself, the painter’s very eye-beam.
In the end, this is Fuller’s true subject. What it means to see. I have said that with him the question is never abstract. Not for one moment do we cease to be interested in the breathing world he paints. But he is a highly sophisticated painter, immersed in what has been painted before him, conscious of the conversation one must go on having with painters of the past, serious. impersonal, and there is no painting in which we do not feel that it is thought. with him, that is forever being transmuted into sense. To call him an intellectual does scant justice to his sensuality. And to dwell on what is sensual in him undersells what is of the intellect. Perhaps we can say that he is supremely a painter of intellectual sensuality. Not forgetting that he is also – or if you like for that very reason – supremely a painter of enravishment.
© Howard Jacobson