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David Surman: Portraits of A Wild Family

27 Sep - 22 Oct, 2022

David Surman Artwork | The Prodigal Son

David Surman - The Prodigal Son (2022)

In Portraits of a Wild Family at SENS Gallery, David Surman pairs the formal considerations of abstract expressionism with natural subjects such as plants and animals. The form suits its content given that these images were culled from the mind - either made up entirely or crafted from the unstable process of recollection. The implementation of partially clarified forms echoes the sensibility of Neo Expressionist painters. Having previously bracketed the nadir of lockdown and immediate, post-Brexit pandemonium in the 2021 exhibition Fairy Painting, this new body of work presents an “if so, then what?” reverberation. 

A childhood spent drawing and painting in rural Scotland prompted a neighbor - Robert Fairley - to take note and instruct a young Surman on the machinations of canvas prep and compositional technique. Early exposures to Picasso and Hokusai as well as Hermann Nitsch’s actionist film further amplified the already art-obsessed teenager, though he soon pivoted to digital media theory and practice which he pursued for over a decade. Painting remained peripheral to Surman’s chief concerns until around 2012, when he noticed a shift in the medium’s vitality. At this point a renewed sense of potential was invested in the project of painting, with object presence rising to the fore as a critical aspect of its viability. 

Following a long pursuit of knowledge within screen-based cultures, Surman’s turn to painting is not without the baggage of understanding attained within those other fields. He considers the position of the viewer as involved in a knowing, ironic relationship with sense perception in an affect driven culture. Technological interfaces function as outlets for the stimming of our cognition, we are complicit in social media’s pleasure loops. The producers of these interfaces understand that it is meaningless to play with intellect, instead targeting users as sensing mammals. In a post internet climate, painting functions as an ideal technology in that it operates as a hyper object, wrought with meaning-making, and is largely non-dependent on a static resting place. Surman targets this viability and pursues the animal kingdom as a prompt for the viewer to contend with human nature in the face of other beings. Nature is read against the context of rapid technological advancements. What does it mean to paint an animal in 2022? What does it mean to paint a sunset in 2022? 

When Jonathan Meese speaks of Nahrungskette (which literally translates to “food chain”) he identifies the role of the son as below that of the mother. Meese updates the term with his own conception of the interdependent familial structure, referring to one’s role within the “nourishing chain.” Understanding placement in this hierarchy is a liberating endeavor. Surman engages with this idea in order to paint beings rather than subjects. He further highlights a Bergsonian concern for the élan vital (“vital impulse”) - i.e. the life force - of a living being. This energetic spirit is starkly against any logical reduction, it merely is. Painting is an outlet which allows forvitality to emanate in the form of aura. Surman pursues this end through direct expressionist means. 

Barnett Newman’s maxim “aesthetics is to artists what ornithology is to birds” carries the notion that art is without a scientific governing principle and is, instead, reliant on its discrete autonomous conditions and an engaged viewership. The painter does not impose a fixed meaning, but leaves it open to the viewer-subject who bears his or her unique knowledge database and perceptual aptitude. The canvas functions as a receptacle for the painter’s ungoverned whims, and is then subject to the will of those who behold it. His acrylics run wild as he paints on the floor; spillages coagulate, forming elevations of color and texture. 

Surman’s dogs are paintings, not by virtue of literally being composed of paint on a canvas, but in sentiment as well. The malleability of the animal is aligned with the malleability of the medium throughout history. A chihuahua used to be a wolf, a painting used to be pigment on cave walls. Human beings bred both into new and convoluted versions with minor tethers to origins, instead resigned to a course that is always-becoming. Art history and dog history exist in deep time. 

The natural order of things is a clear conceptual impulse held by Surman as he establishes his particularized animal kingdom. Wild projections of imagined creatures are placed on display to the effect that one may recognize alterity as a construct of man’s egoism. Surman’s interspecies leveling is a move to broker communion between humans and earth despite our age of post-internet malaise.

Reilly Davidson is a New York based writer and curator.