MARTIN HOLMAN

Jeffrey Dennis

And sense the solving emptiness
that lies just under all we do


From
Ambulances
by
Philip Larkin (1961)

Commuters travelling escalators at a tube station. The view from a deserted upstairs landing to the tall stairway below. Two vacant shoe lasts cross their metal feet. A weather buoy at sea; an empty suburban street - both becalmed under blue skies. A lawn-mower pushed purposefully by a man over unseen grass.

The connection between these episodes needs be nothing more than that they all occur as miniature scenes in a recent painting by Jeffrey Dennis. Well wrought and intermittently eventful, they defy a sequence and seem largely untroubled by a theme. Two elements threaten to impose coherence on this ensemble of enigmas: the first is the litany of events as recited by the onlooker; the title,
the Emigrant Returned, is the second. Releasing nebulous notions of absence and journeying, both putative catalysts trigger this anthology of disparate elements to detonate at intervals like air-bursts in the viewer's imagination. But neither succeed in denting the word-retarding allusiveness of Dennis's imagery which is unusually good and deserving of similes.

For all the beguiling colour, richness and charm of his work, Dennis creates some of the most unsettling paintings around. Alongside a poet's unmistaking eye for chord-striking detail, he displays an evocative wistfulness the targets the awkward, compromised and unconquerable that make up human life. Tempered by the generous deployment of Ealingesque humour, Dennis attempts neither to celebrate the chore and tragedy of everyday nor to transcend it, but just to acknowledge it. He achieves this with originality and a humanity rare to contemporary painting.

While he depicts scenes with figurative imagery, Dennis avoids the conventions of a narrative painting. In place of a story line, he takes different routes to a world where meaning appears to be obscured.
North and East employs blistering economy of means. A small painting from 1992, it includes two distinct scenes or vignettes. On the left a man walks with a child (his family?) to the curb of an urban street. Across a stretch of open territory that is the picture's surface is the second view where the massive glazed gable-end of a station shed rises above the deserted slip road to some lock-ups beneath the railway arches. In this case the title fuels rather than dispels the mystery of this conjunction.

In Dennis's larger paintings, visual material spills from the proliferation of these tiny, unmatched scenes. As if to underline their disparity, viewpoints change, scales vary and space is constantly interrupted, juggling near and far. In their enchanting, mind-drifting reluctance to loiter around one idea, Dennis's pictures can project an image of the world as a source of diversions. Events are heavily shaded into an ambiguity that leads to confusion and bewilderment - are they memories of the past or scoops into the present? Fantasy or reality? Comic capery or heroics of the absurd?

As unexpected as the array of images is the strangeness of their setting, an effervescence of bubble-like circles which resembles a scummy fizz or subcutaneous layer. The textures of this engrossing mass are not fixed - sometimes it is light aerial blue; in other works it is grassy green or a dense putty-brown hue, like the cross-section of an Aero bar. Each setting establishes a dominant colour for the composition, and being decorously bulbous and unremittingly uniform like a rendered wall, it becomes the trackless territory in which the individual vistas sit in an uneasy relationship. For it is hard to deduce whether each cameo is emerging from the receding fizz or if it is about to be consumed by the rising tide of it.

The origin and purpose of this device is a further mystery. Dennis has mentioned an astrophysicist's metaphor that he likes, and this may offer a clue as to why his paintings look the way they do. In the metaphor, a systematic survey of vast galaxies was described as a 'slice through the suds in the kitchen sink'. The notion of shrinking the universe into the domestic area must have appealed to Dennis: many of his ideas for paintings spring from home and his surroundings which he sharply observes.

The allusion to scientific research fits these pictures well. For while the search for answers turns into a long and in itself ultimately questionable affair, further puzzles emerge. Small anonymous figures appear, mostly alone, almost indistinct in this dense, deep-laid tumescent terrain to the point of merging with it cell by cell. Baffled by the predicament of these people, the viewer might also become creepily aware of his own position of observing their antics as if they were laboratory specimens in a new environment. There a back-packer scrutinises a map while other figures appear in all manner of costumes, in shorts perhaps or a dress suit. One sits expectantly, another leans precariously forward as if expecting a precipitous drop that we cannot see.

Life in these paintings comes across as somehow out of kilter with itself. It is prone to random displacements and influenced by unseen, unexplained forces. Yet against a background of grim sameness, people respond placidly and make do, their earnest actions often reduced to folly, foolishness and futile gesture. And where humour intervenes - as with the man seen practising his swimming strokes at home while balanced on a kitchen stool - it leavens rather than misleads. The form these paintings take extends this disquieting sensation of disorder. Many are constructed from unframed panels of varying sizes, each attached to the last. The resulting construction seems to meander over a gallery wall with the waywardness of a game of dominoes unhampered by rules. Moreover each panel features not only obscured vignettes in the landscape of suds, but also a bizarre network of ducts. They resemble sections of underground pipes, some threaded with cable, that for an undisclosed reason break the surface every so often in gaping sections. The framework they suggest exposes itself as a sham, because each facet of it obstructs function. Like channels that cannot conduct or bones that will not support, the pipes look incapable of a function. And the progress of the panels is only towards the next rectangular board.

The strength of these parts is in their effect on one another. The half-exhumed broken tubes turn up in
Barry's Rich Hours, for instance, another multi-parted configuration. Here they shuttle the eye, and perhaps also the duodecimo figures, around the flaky, bubbling skin of the painting. Pocket images poke through the rubble-coloured wall of matter like possible escape routes. Some lead to the humdrum everyday, others present more exotic possibilities. There is a downward view of a Hoover skulking in the corner of a kitchen, flex and hose akimbo on the chequer-pattern lino; a patch of lush-leaved cabbages; some Moorish tiling along a wall; a supermarket transaction; a ruined abbey; glimpses of doorways and a peopleless street in town; some tube seat fabric. The patchwork of events crops up like random diary entries, and plausibly spans dream, memory, banal reality and boredom.

But meaning remains open; and like its physical structure - a pattern of panels closing in around an empty centre - the picture could be extended indefinitely in search of its own ending. The head of this conga of painted panels never quite joins up with its tail as it snakes around the wall. Similarly, the action does not flow continuously, but breaks and shifts. What the ensemble pointedly lacks is fulfilment, like an advent calendar that has somehow lost its way to a single moment of revelation. Dennis's painting forms into a state of being, routed with outstanding acuity through the undramatic epic of urban life. It provides an acute definition in the vernacular which is made more deeply poignant by the irony in the title.

None of which means that Dennis's outlook is world-weary. Rather there is stoicism in his vision, an encouraging persistence which can unlock new possibilities. these qualities break into the way he paints, which is always purposefully and inventively. On the one hand, there is the painter who is fond of his mannerisms and who puts obstacles in his own way. He sets up perverse difficulties and then deals with them. For example, from time to time globs of impastoed paint disfigure surfaces like unsightly blemishes. These are painted into and through rather than erased. His handling is anyway often fluid, almost scruffy but dexterous in its variety, while his colour and drawing can be as direct as a cartoon comic-book's. Indeed his sources seem frequently to be drawn from the things that stimulate and amuse him: from the art of the street, from music and from cinematic techniques. Idiosyncratic touches appear knowingly on occasions to undermine his own skill, rendering his painting awkward and gauche, to rough up, as it were, the 'fine' in fine art.

Then on the other hand, there is the artist who persists with ideas and sees them pay dividends. In the past he has painted on a surface curved like a television screen's. He distorts images with the delight of a computer graphics operator: they can come come at the spectator curved and flattened and stretched. But with each device he makes a wider point to his audience, about the transmission of information, perhaps, or about our expectations of a painting. And since the early 1990's, Dennis has moved on to wrapping a painted surface around an object which is then placed on the floor or a table top. In a number of these works, scenes emerge from densely painted base to take three-dimensional form. In
Cello from 1992, the painted surface covers a tube and the oil can it is joined to. The title raises musical connotations that the construction seems eagerly to deny. But Dennis's action prods the mind, as if teasing out a train of thought about the trick that transforms a mere form into a object through the agency of art, just as it takes a musician to create an instrument from a crafted wooden shape.

Dennis's recent exhibition at the Anderson O'Day gallery in London was his first solo show of depth in England since filling a room with paintings at the Whitechapel almost eight years earlier. In this surprisingly long interval Dennis has established a reputation internationally among curators. He has been included in significant group shows in Frankfurt and Amsterdam, and has been the subject of four one-man exhibitions at his dealer's New York Gallery since 1985. The Tate, the Stedelijk, the Arts Council and British Council possess examples of his work.

Born in Colchester in 1958, he studied painting at the Slade. His strength became apparent in the mid 1980's with paintings that were small in scale with flat, impermeable surfaces. They displayed his interest in tangential musings sparked into life by a touring imagination. Scenes of an intriguing diversity were conjured out of bizarre and unpromising points of departure, such as wallpaper patterns or the colours and forms of food packaging.

In
the Beachcombers, painted in 1985, there is a screwy logic in the transition from the background of tomato-red baked beans to a blue, cloud-swept sky with sea birds circling over a pebbly shore where a man and woman are scavenging. Then between the two figures a vignette of a well-stocked grocer's shelves erupts, throwing out spliced tentacles of camera film though fissures of bean-bedappled cloud and wrack-strewn shore alike. The picture evolves on the canvas as a distracted mind scrolls through thoughts; each incident emerges to displace the last, though not completely. Shape gives rise to shape - bean begets pebble - and colour generates colour as hot oranges and browns frustrate the beach-scene's fresh seaside tones.

In these pictures, Dennis took the imagination for a walk. His process was no more aimless than it is now; that is, not aimless at all. In fact they prick like a pin at states of self-absorption, from the languor of boredom to a poignant alone-ness, that strike chords in his audience. His pictures are attractive because they know our own game. Dennis puts his finger on the hypnotic, friendly allure of fantasy that, largely inconsequential and built over nothing, distracts us momentarily from something tedious or unpleasant.

Dennis continues to work in London and lives on the eastern outskirts. William Morris was born nearby and the museum dedicated to his aims and the work which embodied them commemorates this fact. The area was changing into a dormitory suburb in Morris's time, and has since become shadowland as local shops give way to recession, or to edge-of-town shopping centres which have transformed it into a place more driven through than stopped at. There is also a high incidence of Underground stations. These tubes inserted through glutinous clay drain Dennis's locale daily of commuters, like those he depicts as a faceless crowd, spilling out of trains and onto city platforms in his paintings, leaving the streets as long and empty as the Sunday afternoons of memory. Dennis's studio is served by that loop at the end of the Central line which, punctuated by abrupt off-peak terminations, resembles the layout of his paintings. Station names too resound to an antiquarian England like gobbets of Mallory.

Morris lies behind much of Dennis's new work. Literally, for in many cases Morris's ornate floral wallpaper designs provided Dennis with a starting point he is fond of. Acanthus leaves and chrysanthemum stalks peep through the foaming overlay at intervals and occupy the edges of paintings like Barry's Rich Hours. This choice of material seems to resonate through the evolving images. It is possible to think of Dennis, provoked by the history and actuality of his surroundings, being impelled into imagery with Morris's example as a catalyst - the Morris who wanted to return art to the people, or the writer of
News from Nowhere, perhaps, at his most readable when he envisages the future utopia of equal relationships between people, beyond the ugly capitalist society of his own time. When Dennis obscures Morris's designs, he obscures the man's vision too. Taking its place is an over-ripe richness of colour and form, the look of something seriously on the turn towards decay.

Dennis would not reject the tag of romanticist. But then reality is always present in his work. In one painting from 1985, little figures populate a fantasy derived from floral wallpaper. In the picture's hothouse colours, the budding fruits of the print themselves appear to progress on the life cycle to maturity and death. Then a light-switch and cable intervene as a sort of momento vitae. Now in Dennis's more organic turn of mind, there is a sensation of imminence, too, of things yet to happen. More of the same, perhaps, or a big surprise?


1995
Martin Holman  
First published in
The London Magazine February/March 1995 Volume 34 /#11&12
edited by Alan Ross


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