Drunk on violence
For this exhibition, Alex Foxton has mostly painted figures that could be described as positive, or at the very least, images of those guaranteeing stability in the world. Apollo, the god of light, the arts and harmony, inhabits several rooms, surrounded by other symbols of order: soldiers, sailors, all stood upright in their uniforms.
Yet there’s always a feeling of unease upon seeing them. Which is either precisely because of the awkward stiffness of the figures; or because of the curiously easy-to-digest marriage of these scenes of massacres and their seductive colours. Foxton has confided to us that many of the paintings in the exhibition were created in reference to two of his favorite works: Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas (1550-1570) and Ribera’s Apollo and Marsyas (1637), which have always haunted his imagination. We see the satyr Marsyas, having let it be said that he was a better musician than Apollo, and then being flayed alive by the offended god. The painted scenes exude the same atmosphere of unease: Apollo’s youthful perfection contrasts with Marsyas’s aged, deformed body, just as the god’s amused calm, joyful dominance stands out against the satyr’s horrified incredulity. There’s something unsettling about seeing the god of light disfigure the body of an adversary who was never truly his equal, expressing sadistic glee in Ribera’s work, or looking exalted as he encourages others to perform the torture while listening to his violin in Titian’s work.
Foxton confesses to having wanted to ‘paint all the cruelty in the world’, ‘to depict the most violent acts imaginable’, in an undisguised allusion to the context of intensification of violence - or rather, it might be said, its visibility - in which we have been living for some time. Foxton takes up the paradoxical nature of Marsyas’ iconography in his own way. The beauty of the colours, skilfully posed, yields a form of tension between bright and cold tones, and distills a precarious balance between seduction and disgust. The bodies, already highly distorted in Ribera and Titian’s works, are stretched here to the very edge of the canvas, sometimes cut into two distinct frames, as if the artist wished to inscribe the ambiguity that enlivens them in the bodies themselves. Foxton has spoken about ‘yin and yang’, which might even be evoking Nietzsche’s analysis in the Birth of Tragedy. The stories of Ancient Greece and their theatrical portrayal carry this cathartic perspective: The heroes are in fact criminals, (Prometheus, Oedipius) who have sought to do good, by any means possible and ended up inevitably physically, psychically, and socially disfigured by fate and by the gods, leaving the spectators both cleansed of their impulses and also stunned by the moral chiaroscuro of the conclusion.. The Ribera and Titian paintings don’t say anything more: Marsyas, who represents ugliness and excess, has erred and ends up punished by Apollo, who represents order and beauty. It is nonetheless easier for us to identify with the satyr, and to feel uncomfortable with the severity of the punishment. Nietzsche, in fact, thought he had identified a permanent balancing act within Greek tragedy between the Apollonian forces of order and the chaotic dynamics of Dionysus. The excess of one is offset by the other: too much disorder must obviously be counterbalanced with order; but, likewise - and our polite societies regularly forget this - too much order will also produce chaos. It paradoxically needs chaos to regain its balance. In a nutshell, calm must sometimes give way to violence, because real, more insidious violence is the true face of this false harmony behind which lurks an established order seeking to maintain itself, at all costs, by force. Whether the Greek poets and Baroque painters were trying to demonstrate Marsyas’ error or Apollo’s excess, or perhaps both, remains to be seen.
In this respect, Alex Foxton’s paintings are as cathartic as they are therapeutic. The ambiguity of his figures, the colours, the compositions and the narrative logic - also remind us of the fable of Abel and Cain that he has revisited - prevent any simplistic reading, and bring us face to face with the paradoxical violence that inhabits the acts of creating order. Here we find the artist’s fascination with images of young men conscripted into armies the world over, whose naivety and innocence can become the perfect fuel for fascist violence. The paintings, most of which are made up of several layers of other images, remind us, like a manuscript would, that the past informs the present - just as the present reconfigures the past, because the latter can only be read through the former - so all these scenes are rooted in our imaginations, ways of thinking, and upbringings: it does not go unnoticed to anyone that the protagonists are all boys. Chaos is also an inherent part of the method of composition, with the artist painting ‘on’ and ‘against’ ‘randomly prepared backgrounds’, thus allowing an unconscious image to emerge.
But Foxton does not leave us at the threshold of the expressed violence: the inherent beauty of the works, the complementary nature of the figures and colours, and the fact that he expresses the composite nature of existence through canvases cut in two and sculptures split into several blocks, all suggest that the artist is seeking, beyond the cruelty of the scenes, to weave together these scattered forces, presented as adversaries, yet which inherently go hand in hand, as Nietzsche said. It is because this imbalance can be expressed symbolically that it no longer needs to be expressed elsewhere, and it is also by showing the sometimes necessary nature of disorder that the relevance of order is preserved. A lesson that could be pondered by a country that celebrates its revolution with a military parade every year on Bastille Day.
These new works by Foxton take up these old dynamics within his work: a kind of exploration of masculinity and heroic figures, a questioning of the spatial, aesthetic, and symbolic role of colour, keeping its distance from national narratives, and also a somewhat-thwarted declaration of love for older paintings. There seems to be a new perspective added to this, a desire to represent the scattered fragments of the world, violently thrown every which way, that people working with good intentions are still trying to weave back together, like Isis patching up the dismembered corpse of Osiris, or the tikkun olam of the Kabbalah. It is only by being patient and attentive with the world, despite the calls for destruction from any given side, that we will be able to purge the black bile that corrupts the hearts of men.
© Grégory Copitet