Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades

The coarse irony is that to achieve decadence we have to work. In a state of actual decay we are incapable of making anything. We rot, rant, slobber, jabber, ignore time, forget place.

Decadence is a posture created by those whose defining quality is vitality. Martin Fuller isn’t rotting. He is far from jabbering. His limpidity of thought is nimpaired, his lucidity – an important word here – remains horribly astute. He stays 2O/2O. Yet…there is a sensibility here in these paintings which depends if not on psychotropic intervention then on dream or the madness of love. A bit of all three, I guess. And a will touched by irreason and contrarily by the conviction that the material quotidian stuff of his life is sensational but that sensation without reflection, meditation and mediation is sheerly artless. It’s easy to make an inventory of the things he doesn’t do: answers; explanations; hopes; straightforward coupling; anyone else’s take on the world.

He is selfish in the most literal way. He paints himself. But with such tangential deflection that he recalls Alain Robbe-Grillet’s declaration that “I’ve never written about anything other than myself.” Fuller, no less than that Breton mythologist, takes the self to be a site of mutating memories, distorted pasts and an insistent, slippery present. He raises the question of tense, a question that is seldom raised in painting.

Martin Fuller does not paint in the preterite. There is nothing entirely finite here, the past is not historic – it is forever to be confronted and remade. It is easier to wallow in the sump of abstractionist futurism, the most facile of escapes. ‘He makes us realise that retrospection and prospection are lies, that as soon as you make a mark (or write a line) you are creating a fiction. A fiction that Fuller has to rupture. But rupturing something doesn’t make it go away. It’s still there: the fragments of annihilation remain like the fragments of memory which we’ve smoothed to our own content.

When we are young we believe that the fantastical Funes who remembers every time he has remembered everything is a construct. When we are old we acknowledge that Borges’s character is a creation guileful hyperbole. Martin Fuller is a painter whose work endlessly evokes the memory of memories. The present is merely an invitation to the past, a moment when we accede to what was, and what will be. Fuller’s self appointed job is to capture this or that moment of his life. The several tenses collide. Painting is a spatial endeavour. Fuller renders it otherwise, his work is infected with a signal temporality. A drink, say, incites the memory of all previous drinks, a high heel that of every such heel ever swooned over. This is not a matter of representing material archetypes. It is, rather, to recognise that the deliberately straitened gamut of subjects that he eternally returns to are mnemonic catalysts, obsessions echoing obsessions. Every painting he makes has a painting behind it, or the ghosts of many paintings. The layers add up. We begin to discern a resolution: we glimpse stories without an end, we half- hear songs cut off before their climax, we gape at mirrors that may retain the image of the faces that have preened in them.

Ghosts? Magic looking glasses contaminated by properties that they cannot possess? This is a painter of evanescent inventions who bends the laws of the actual (an always approximate conceit). There is an element of the trickster at play here. And, of a man delineating his brainscape, granting himself primacy over the world, making his world which struggles to defy nature yet, contrarily, hymns the strangeness of the ocular. It is apt that his ears should be full of nineteenth century opera and the seething luxuriance of grandiose, lush, symphonic romanticism. These forms are only obliquely representational. They do not tell the truth. They create truths.

Naturalism cannot do this, all it can do is sooth us with the balm of the familiar, show us what we know, invite us to ‘identify’ with the comfy world of alienation, flatter us with our heartfelt ‘concern’ for the downtrodden. Fuller’s eschewal of naturalism admits him and, subsequently, the spectator to a multiplicity of milieux which are neither literal nor immediately comprehensible. They do not reveal his own attitude or a moral – let alone a moralistic – take on what he has found sluicing around his backbrain. Fuller is no more didactic that the composers he adores. Yet, unlike music, painting – unless it is mere pattern making – cannot avoid being about something more than the exhumation of memory and oneiric plunder. Memories and dreams have subjects. We do not simply dream: we dream of Fuller digs for the partially occluded through a dogged, convoluted process of line, colour and translucence. He appears determined not to grant himself knowledge of what he is going to find: if a painter has a finished canvas in mind he is an illustrator. Fuller’s work is composed of an aggregate of unconsecutive marks which are generated by each other, which respond to each other. The paintings are created as he goes along. They are made, so to speak, without a blueprint. Yet they are not ‘spontaneous’. For their spontaneity is tempered by the rehearsal provided by the practice of his art over most of his life; that is, by the balance of the unconscious with a gamut of formal devices and inescapable preoccupations.

The preoccupations are mostly urban, nocturnal, sensual – and morbid. The pursuit of pleasure is attended by risks. That, however, is no reason to forgo it. At night the d├ęcor of guignol asserts itself. Pans and satyrs come out to play. Ancient rites are reprised. Spectres grimace in the shadows. Diurnal safety is dissipated. Death gambols. Humans reveal themselves as animals, as elemental participants pushing at the limits of abandon. They see through each other in their orgiastic licence and libidinous candour.

Fuller returns time and again to frames within frames, glass boxes which render their inhabitants exhibits, and to a sort of baldachino which is also a key-light. It is both holy (or blashemous) and operatic. The ambiguity may harrowing but it is coloured by a vaudevillian humour. So too is what begins as a draft of wine, mutates into a barium tonic and emerges as menstrual blood.

This is painting of energetic contrariness. It denies admission to any part of the man who makes it save the artist with x-ray eyes, with a taste for display and, concealment, with the history of the hothouse contained within him. If there is an approach to straightforward autobiography here it is only to be found in a couple of atypical canvases representing domestic abundance in the forms of racked wine and a large oven at work, pleasures of a different kind, which cannot but remind us that the home is a dangerous place.