Alex Foxton → Ultra-Marine

May 16th - June 15th, 2019

Galerie Derouillon, Haut Marais

Galerie Derouillon is proud to present Alex Foxton's first solo exhibition in our gallery.

Alex Foxton – Genre Fluid

Alex Foxton has only been painting for a few years, yet his only subjects so far have been male figures, or rather, male archetypes: noble warriors, legendary soldiers, dangerous sailors, rebels, lonesome heroes. Foxton does not hesitate to convene major historical figures, notably two tutelary characters for their own national narratives: France’s Napoléon Bonaparte (his adoptive land) and Great Britain’s Horatio Nelson (his homeland). The first is known for conquest of Europe, the latter for his legendary sea battles for the Royal Navy. Both embody a certain idea of flamboyant and murderous manhood. Napoleon, while identifying himself with Alexander the Great, sacrificed six million lives for his ambition of conquering the continent; Nelson, an officer known for his audacity and insubordination, lost an eye and an arm during his maritime adventures for the glory of the British crown, and died close to the cape of Trafalgar. The main character of the exhibition, “Ultra-marine”, a clever pun on the deep blue employed on the paintings, as well as the figure’s characterization as some ultimate war sailor embodiment, with his bicorn, shoulder pieces and medals, also played that tune. On a similar level, Foxton split the famous mutineer of the Bounty, a romantic icon if any, into two separate characters: one named Fletcher, the other Christian. Both reprise the traits of a famous French serial killer. The artist confesses having chosen the sailor figure “because it is a large and universal theme, one can find them everywhere around the world”, but also “because sailors incarnate exploration, they are a metaphor of adventure and research, as I envision my own painting”.

At first, this list may appear as a composite picture of manhood and its associated features: bravery, violence, audacity, authority and rebellion. Yet, if you take a closer look, you would see that the artist never validates those archetypes: on the contrary, he disrupts them. Each one of those images of courage and violence exhales a scent of isolation, frailness, abandonment. Thus, they are always presented alone in each painting, even if they belong to diptychs or triptychs. All of them are put into positions that symbolize at best a state of waiting, and often weakness or passivity.

The disarmament of a certain discourse of masculinity operates through the figuration type used by the artist. Here, the body is at stake: the broadened size of shoulders, the scaled-down hips, the disappearance pf the chin and jaws are contradictory signs of a manhood displayed and denied at the same time, as if the figures were dolls mimicking an excess of testosterone, yet without really fulfilling it.

This contrast is also noticeable with the representation of the body. It is frequently pictured with flat colors, while hands, and more importantly the face, display a strong feeling of relief. In fact, the artist says he always begins his painting with the representation of the face, in order to give his image some depth in a small surface, before immediately neutralizing it with a vivid and flat color, in order to make us feel even more the artificiality o the representation.

Again, we get that impression of having a doll in our hands: soft body, plastic face. This bodily segmentation is reinforced by the chromatic work: the deep blue is often put next to a “lipstick red” or candy pink, more female-oriented colours, suggesting the character’s ambiguity. The deep blue was elected almost by chance: it was simply the first powder pigment bought by the artist, fascinated with the material quality. This blue was quickly considered as a sea metonymy, a space of adventure and perdition, but also of travel into unconsciousness. Ochre came as its natural counterpart, before the artist turned to pink, a color that has intrigued him for a long time because of its multiple associations: flesh, kitsch, sweetness, little girls…

Alex Foxton seems to have some malicious delight in collapsing those prototypes of manhood. The ‘Ultra-marine’ doesn’t really have any credibility in his flashy pink attire. Napoleon gets deprived of his traditional outfit to be showcased as a young pirate, with his scarf and earring. Same thing for Nelson, who is rejected as a grand officer and presented as a young recruit with a juvenile face. It’s a way for Alex Foxton to give them back their complexity as mere men, with their strengths and weaknesses, to erase the oversimplification varnish of the ‘national hero’ label, and to address his “real respect for these men”. As for the others figures, the parallel between those stale male archetypes and homoerotic icons is way too strident to be ignored, and amplifies the feeling that Alex Foxton’s painting tries to deconstruct the traditional approach towards masculinity.

With his paintings, he sculpts new icons of manhood, with all its complexity and ambiguity. The artist notices that, in fact, “uniforms, like suits, function as purely symbolic armour”. The figures’ elegance, the beauty of the contrasts, the quality of the colour selection, all immediately strike the viewer. Yet these paintings never fall into mere ornamentation, and even dare to set foot on the dangerous fields of art history. A sharp eye can spot several fallen angels, a few Marsyas about to be flayed, some Picasso acrobats, while other more frontal characters evoke harlequins from the blue-to-rose transition period of the same artist. Alex Foxton doesn’t fear to claim that Picasso, Braque and Matisse “are [his] heroes”, landmarks that he want to honor, but also defy. The lack of a classical artistic education gives him the freedom to go to the Great Masters’ field to question them, to push them to their limits, as a bad pupil would do with his favourite teacher. That is the same freedom we feel in his unapologetic exploration of figurative oil painting – a trait he shares with his generation – a freedom that allows him to quote Picasso’s forms, Matisse’s or even Hockney’s colours, without bearing the burden of such inheritance. Also, the very genre of the academic portrait seems questioned. Those kinds of painting, and the artists affiliated with them, have been instrumental in creating our views on manhood. Wandering around those antique myths and theses official representations, the artist performs an archeology of gender, of which he unveils the different layers.

In his own way, Alex Foxton puts into question masculine identity on several levels, but each time in depth, delivering a tension-filled painting, that mixes with mastery an archeology of images and the power of colour. According to him, his paintings act more as reflections of his own questions, rather than definitive statements. This gender painting is –before anything else – some great painting.

Nicolas-Xavier Ferrand

British artist Alex Foxton presents his first solo exhibition at Galerie Derouillon, with a new series of paintings entitled ‘Ultra-Marine’. Continuing an exploration of the male figure, a historical narrative unfolds – solidifying his lyrical vision by considering archetypes of bygone masculinity from the opulence of aristocracy to the plight of the mariner lost at sea. In tricorns and military regalia, abstract depictions of the French emperor Napoleon and British naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson punctuate the series against passive, dream-like portraits of solitary male figures enveloped in planes of flat colour. Virile symbolism abounds as Foxton manipulates the morphology of the male form, accentuating the waist and shoulders whilst the jawline disappears into each brightly-coloured neck. The skin of their hands, limbs and facial features are rendered in soft shadows on untreated canvas throughout. A play of hot and cold pink tones appears almost solarised against the natural palette of ultramarine, midnight blue and rust brown, as the subtle details of epaulettes, medals, earrings and passementerie are scratched and highlighted as delicate amulets. Employing notions of chiaroscuro, ideas of positive and negative space are blurred as both garments and backgrounds mimic ocean blues in swathes of textural impasto and blocks of solid colour, reprising notions of the sea as a symbol of the human subconscious.

Dan Thawley

© Grégory Copitet