Robert Snell. Writer & critic
(Published in the 1991 exhibition catalogue 'Adrian Hemming' Arts Council Gallery, Belfast)
Adrian Hemming’s concern with the human figure reflects his faith in the power of the encounter between artist and model, and in the wisdom of the artist’s instinctual response. His work belongs to the widespread neo-expressionistic figurative revival which got underway in the 1980’s; its roots are also deeper and broader, and can be traced, by way of Bomberg and Cézanne, to an older, European Romantic tradition. Hemming’s paintings and drawings are part of a continuing historical engagement with the human body, the landscape, and the materiality and beauty of paint, out of which elemental themes emerge.
Hemming needs the constant stimulus of the life model, especially in poses of physical tension suggestive of excitement or fear. It is as if the presence of the model, its full impact, can most keenly be felt under such conditions. Like the nineteenth century French Romantic Géricault, who similarly needed to return again and again to the living model when he was completing his vast Raft of the Medusa, Hemming is interested in painting an experience not of calm but physical stress, with its associations of risk and survival.
There is a great deal of urgency behind the drawing. It sometimes seems to be a kind of shorthand, approaching caricature. At other times the figure almost disappears or is subsumed within the paint, as in the picture of the plummeting Ophelia. This, together with the evidence of gesture in the application of the paint or charcoal, serves to underline the urgency of the artist’s effort to grasp a sense of the model’s living presence; it can also convey the inexorable reality of this presence. If these works are ‘of’ the human figure, what they are ‘about’, their more profound contents, it is the very experience of making images of the body. They catch this experience at its maximum intensity.
The subjects and titles of the pictures, with their themes of falling, climbing, and clinging, often seem to have emerged incidentally: they stand in relation to the artist’s involvement with the figure as the falling Icarus does to the landscape in Bruegel’s painting. They are by-products, or else they have been enlisted as justifications for the choice of poses: this may, for example, have been the case with some of the ‘Angel’ paintings and drawings. Sometimes, themes have simply imposed themselves, or welled out of the work as if of their own volition. The title Raft, evoking Géricault’s painting, presented itself after the series of small drawings to which it refers was first assembled as a group.
However it is that these subjects and titles arose, they suggest a strong link with art of the late Enlightenment and the early Romantic era, in two of its key aspects, its humanitarian force and its depictions of darkness and the irrational – its communication of a sense of the reciprocity of climbing and falling. The Raft drawings, for example, hint at the survival and release of prisoners or victims, and recall Géricault and above all, with their sticks, crutches and ropes, some of Goya’s late prints and drawings of torture, tribulation and endurance. One of Goya’s most moving lithographs, Aún aprendo (I’m still learning) which shows an old man leaping on two sticks, particularly comes to mind. Like Goya’s, the Raft figures, and those in two large drawings of angels and ladders, do more than merely survive: they have a tremendous, buoyant, erotic energy. They are celebrations of bodies in their freedom, which subsists in spite of the direst circumstances.
In the same breath the work speaks of the destruction and dissolution of the body, of the unthinkable, of that which seems to defy reason and preconception. It addresses the emotions through its expressionistic use of colour: for example the bilious green in Ophelia is redolent of a sickened disgust in life. It dwells on primitive fears and traumas, on the descent into the abyss, a theme which is most graphically stated in the painting Joseph and his Brothers. The figures sometimes recall the work of another painter of the late Enlightenment, Fuseli, who also found in poses of great tension and attenuation metaphors for dream states and strong sexual feeling. Hemming’s fearsome imagery remains, however, closer in spirit to Goya: it does not, like Fuseli’s, seem to be answerable to criteria of reasonableness, politeness and decorum.
The artist makes no claim completely to ‘understand’ the meanings of the images he produces. They are, as has been said of Goya’s Black Paintings, records and traces of their own birth; the painting Ancient Evening (its title borrowed from Norman Mailer’s novel about transmigration of Souls) can b seen as a metaphor for the creative process itself. These images do not frighten their creator; his concern, as ever, is the making of the work, with fashioning the substance and body of the paint and charcoal into something which resonates with his sense of his own physical and emotional being.
Primal forces are confronted head-on in the Mexican paintings. These reflect an ancient culture which had no equivalents for the Enlightenment notions of progress and freedom. On one level they are about ‘otherness’, that of a civilisation distant in time and space, and the essential foreignness of a body which is distinct from one’s own. In their large scale and the quality of the paint, which is flakey and encrusted, works such as The House of Uxmal and Dance of the Iguana also recall European Romantic and post-Romantic painters of the Sublime, the nineteenth century Englishman James Ward, for example, or the twentieth century American Clifford Still; they invite us to merge with them, to experience both the bliss of union and the fear of being overwhelmed. The paintings tap a primitive language of myths about the body’s creation and destruction, the key terms in which are blood and water, fire and earth.
Our Lady of the Iguana, with its strip of glaze catching the light on the figure's face and breast, seems to have been born out of the darkness. Derived from a portrait by the Mexican photographer Graciana Iturbide, she is perhaps the Aztec moon goddess Metztli; the lizards which constitute her crown are, in ancient Mexican as in other mythologies, lunar creatures; they stand for the principle of humidity. The painting brings together a number of the exhibition's themes. On the mythic level, Our Lady is a meso-American Medusa, and more. She is the controller of tides and of menstruation, carrying threats of flood, drowning and chaos together with the possibility of all creation. She embodies that concern with the fluid interplay of change, pain and growth which is at the heart of
Hemming's work, and of the profoundly moving events on which he invites us to gaze.