We’ve seen a lot of ‘pandemic art’ over the last two years, from NHS workers’ portraits to Channel 4’s Grayson’s Art Club. It’s given us hope, entertainment, a chance to say thank you, a sense of connection, and a way to express a complicated mish-mash of feelings few of us were really prepared for. But what most artists have shied away from is the raw stuff of life and death. In this new show at Modern Art Oxford, Anish Kapoor actively immerses us in a world of flesh and blood – and in doing so, provides an intense and unflinching reflection on recent times. It’s not easy, Insta-friendly art - it’s not going to translate comfortably into tote bags and mugs - and that feels entirely right. If you find yourself feeling squeamish about this exhibition, that’s all the more reason to visit. It’s the art we need, even if it’s not the art we ‘like’.
Almost all the work in Painting was completed during 2020 and 2021, although the themes featured were clearly percolating in Kapoor’s mind before the pandemic – as Goddess as a Girl (2017) and Blood and Semen (2019) show. But whilst Goddess… feels like someone playing with the idea of blood-and-life-giving, the paintings and sculptures from 2020-2021 have a feeling of personal urgency, as though the artist developed an enhanced awareness of just how easy it would be to die. The paint is handled with a rough immediacy – great, thick smears of ultra-impasto scarring the canvasses. The dominant colour is blood red. The sculptures look like bloodied organs, torn from context, left draped where they fall. We see eruptions, explosions, cuts and disembowelment.
In the 1990s, the infamous Sensation exhibition dealt with superficially similar themes - Marc Quinn’s head made from his frozen blood; Damien Hirst’s decaying cow head and flies, and cross-sections of animals – but, for me, the difference is that back then playing with these ideas felt like a clever game. Those works were neatly encased in the kind of glass displays you might expect to find in a contemporary jewellers, and in taking literal flesh and blood, they felt (to me, aged 16 at the time) curiously banal and unemotional – death as a ‘cool’ fetish for smug guys who feel no real risk of their own demise, blood as an ‘edgy’ medium for people who do not see it every month during menstruation, dead livestock as a ‘shock’ for people who’ve lived very sheltered lives (or never been to Oxford’s covered market!). In contrast, the work in Painting leaves plenty of room for your imagination to create its own narratives. My personal response took in slaughterhouses, our attitudes to other living beings, the incredible work of surgeons, the agony of our planet, blood and flesh as worthless, disposable materials vs. blood and flesh as valuable, prized life (and the strange ways in which this ‘value’ is decided by society).
The times we are in matter: seeing Painting in 1997 might’ve felt similarly cool and clever – but it’s hard to live through 18 months of daily death tolls in the news, of personal experiences of loss, worry and isolation, of questioning your own blood (am I immune yet?), and not have it affect how you respond to works like this. If you have any interest in issues around extinction and global suffering, this too will frame your experience of the exhibition. Illness, injury, surgery, pregnancy, loss, birth – all these intensely physical experiences will colour how you respond. And strangely, I think it’s this scope for deep individuality that makes the show so compelling. These might be fairly universal parts of being alive, but each one of us has a very personal experience of living in our bodies, of creating and caring for others, and imaginings of death. A visit to Anish Kapoor’s Painting provides something for Every Body.
Anish Kapoor – Painting | Modern Art Oxford | Until 13 Feb 2022