Home Luxury brand Haunted Realism review – a sickening and intoxicating vision of late capitalism | Art and design

Haunted Realism review – a sickening and intoxicating vision of late capitalism | Art and design

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AGagosian’s elegant Grosvenor Hill outpost, not far from London’s Bond Street, is a hard-hitting and rather masculine new exhibition that plays with the detritus of the 20th century, both physical and philosophical, in a way that the visitor immediately feels drunk and an uncomfortable touch. Here are disembodied eyeballs and flowing blonde wigs. Here are distended sock dolls and toy plastic soldiers, grossly corrupt politicians and butcher shops that look like murder scenes. Metro strike or not, the day I visited, people were shopping as invincibly as ever in the streets outside the gallery. Crossing them on entering, I couldn’t help but think, furtively, of a dress I aspire to own. But no sooner was I inside the vast spaces of Gagosien than this agitation disappeared. The first thing I saw was a silent rebuke to my lust in the form of a water fountain that looked like it had suddenly turned to stone.

Graphite water cooler by Adam McEwen, 2011. Photography: Douglas M. Parker Studio

Water cooler (2011), which is made of graphite, is the work of Adam McEwen, one of more than 30 artists featured in Gagosian’s Haunted Realism show, the overall effect of which is to erase, even if not is only temporarily, your most libidinous desires. Guilt rises within you – an unintended theme is global warming – the notion of consumption of any kind quickly seems pointless and rather tasteless. Turn the first bend, for example, and four images combine to make you feel even worse than usual about late capitalism. The first comes Hong Kong Shanghai Bank I (2020) by German photographer Andreas Gursky: an image of an office building at night that resists any heat despite every window being lit. Then there is Richard Artschwager industrial complex (1967), a gray acrylic rag of urban nothingness that is painted on Celotex, a material used as insulation. Next to this is a print based on the masterful blur of a painting by Gerhard Richter September (2009), produced in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Finally, there is that of Ed Ruscha spied On the scene (2019), in which a rocky desert is circled in black, as if viewed through a rifle sight.

These pieces have something in common beyond their political subject matter: together they embody a sense of surveillance, a voyeuristic mood that continues, intermittently, throughout the exhibition. Sometimes it happens thanks to old-fashioned voyeurism: Untitled (1961), a drawing of a nude by now much frowned upon bondage enthusiast Hans Bellmer, hangs alongside John Murphy’s photograph of a dead woman in a scarlet dress, The worst days are coming (2022), the two dialogue in a very uncomfortable way. But at other times it is more explicit, the roles having been reversed, it is the visitor who is observed. There are eyes everywhere, especially in the form of the sculpture by Urs Fischer Dazzled (2016), a pair of knee-high yellow-green orbs that have something showy about them.

Modern Africa #3 by Neil Jenney, 2016-20.
Modern Africa #3 by Neil Jenney, 2016-20. Photography: Robert McKeever/© Neil Jenney, courtesy Gagosian

haunted realism, sometimes luscious and sometimes eldritch, takes its title from “hantology”, a word coined by Jacques Derrida to designate the way in which the past lingers within the present. The term was later popularized by the late cultural critic Mark Fisher, including a copy of the 2009 book capitalist realism sits on a shelf at the Gagosian. (Fisher thought we couldn’t even imagine an economic system other than capitalism, which is why the appearance of his book in the gallery tickled me: Gagosian, after all, is the first luxury brand in the art world.) However, the main focus of the exhibition, we are told, is on how the aspirations of modernity have become “lost futures”, discernible only as “ghostly traces”; the artists exhibited tackle this by confronting the “accelerated flow of images” in contemporary culture and the proliferation of “non-places” that we increasingly inhabit.

Personally, I think this show is best enjoyed unfettered by theory. It’s a good introduction to some artists, mostly American, who are relatively unknown in the UK. I was drawn to Neil Jenney’s imaginary landscape of sand and ruins, Modern Africa #3 (2016-2020), struck by how it evoked a comic book setting (think Charles Burns). Llyn Foulkes was a new name to me, and I enjoyed his mixed media portrayal, Tail (2020), which features the (I think) wooden handle of a bradawl for President Nixon’s nose.

Untitled (Black Bed) by Rachel Whiteread, 1991.
Untitled (Black Bed) by Rachel Whiteread, 1991. © Rachel Whiteread
Trace by Jenny Saville, 1993-4.
Trace, 1993-4. © Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2022; courtesy Gagosian

Mostly, though, it’s worth seeing for its unlikely and often brilliant juxtapositions. In one room, its curator, Mark Francis, brought together Untitled (Upstate)a group of prints (1995-99) documenting rural decline by American photographer Richard Prince; Untitled (Black Bed) (1991), a sculpture of a mattress by Rachel Whiteread; and Trace (1993-94) by figurative artist Jenny Saville, a typically unforgiving oil of a bare back. They work so well together, these three, Saville’s waxy expanse of flesh now reminiscent of a mattress, and Whiteread’s sculpture looking straight out of one of Prince’s backyards. Viewed in this way, Whiteread’s abstraction blends into realism; Saville could have painted not a nude but a still life. As for Prince, an artist known primarily for his sense of ownership, he seems a more benign presence than usual — not so much a thief, you might say, as an influencer.

  • Haunted Realism is at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill, London W1, until August 26