Jonathan Alibone @ Reading Room Gallery

Reading Room is a leading digital consultancy in Soho, central London. They have very imaginatively turned the (fairly small) Reception and Waiting area of their offices into a gallery which showcases new young artists. Visiting them on business recently, I was very struck by the exhibition of paintings by Jonathan Alibone.

There’s a text explaining that the pictures “offer a critical interrogation of western culture’s beliefs and values, and an exploration of the conflicted territory between such opposing concepts as: faith and doubt, reality and fantasy, the enduring and the transient, and physical desire versus spiritual longing”. Well. Maybe. An artist has to write something to explain or rationalise his work.

But I just immediately liked his paintings. I liked the size and shape of them (a yard or so square). I liked the roughness of the way the oil sat on the centimetre-deep canvases. I liked the way they had no frames and the sides of the canvas were raw, unpainted.  I liked the splotching and blotching of paint on the surface – I’ve always liked unfinished oils, paintings which overtly state the incompletess, the incompletability of the work of art, from Dada, collage, cubism onwards, the impossibility of completion, perfection or ‘beauty’ in such a chaotic century.

The subject matter is gothic, dwelling on skulls and deaths heads, or Hollywood pinups from the 50s cut out and abandoned in post-apocalyptic wastelands of oil, or soft porn images. (The latter reminded me a bit of the lovely mosaics by Chris Ofili which, when you look close up, turned out to be made from hundreds of hard core images cut out from porn mags.)

The use of 1950s Hollywood icons reminded me of JG Ballard, his obsession with Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Crash’. Here’s a black and white image of Liz (painted, cut from a magazine?) abandoned in a dark desert landscape with tempting apples hanging from pale drizzles of paint, wittily titled ‘Landscape with Sin’.

Landscape with Sin by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

Landscape with Sin by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

The obviousness of the Hollywood motif and of the Bible reference, the triteness of the apparently apocalyptic or pseudo-religious sentiment, is, for me, itself a comment on the hopeless self-referentiality of the visual arts; Dada thought painting was over in the 1910s; the cubists cut up and pasted newspapers/magazines onto the canvas; the surrealists undermined all rationality of art; the abstract expressionists made painting about the surface and contour of the paint itself; Andy Warhol made prints of any striking image which caught his window-dressing eye. Alibone comes very, very late to this worn-out 20th century tradition. These paintings aren’t secondary or tertiary, they contain archaeological depths of recycled imagery, countlessly overused stock imagery from film or pop, stereotypical religious paraphernalia and iconography which have become so emptied of meaning or import as to have gone beyond the emptily decorative into new spaces of meaninglessness. I like that the imagery inhabits – creates – embodies this extremity of used-upness. I like the feeling of hollowness the images give me.

But also – I like these paintings for their painterliness. I really like the Alibone’s use of oil. I enjoy the texture of the background, the unknown dun landscape where Liz has been plonked down and her apples of desire incongruously hang.

‘Something For The Weekend’ is a visual gag, a cemetery death’s head hung on a condom dispenser – Sex and death, pleasure and mortality, the little death and the big death etc. Endless loops of critical discourse could be generated about these mashups; overeducated curators could spin reams of commentary on the witty conceits which fill Alibone’s works.

Something for the Weekend by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

Something for the Weekend by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

In an early essay TS Eliot said the meaning of the poem is like the steak the burglar tosses to the guard dog; while the dog gives all his attention to the meat, the burglar quietly goes about  his business. Eliot meant that, while the reader fusses and frets about the “meaning” of the poem, the poem goes about its actual work, using words, phrases, rhythms, assonance, rhyme etc, beneath the level of conscious thought, having its impact, making itself felt, changing our sensibility.

I feel the same about Alibone’s work. The overt image in each painting or drawing is witty, clever, ironic -sometimes ominous or cheesy, sometimes with the hollowness of a pop collagist like Richard Hamilton. The interplay between striking image and witty title – Sin-A-Rama, To All Who Come To This Happy Place, Sirens Sweetly Singing – tosses sops to the reader’s conscious mind, make us laugh or shiver.

But all the time the art – the colour and fabric and texture and design – are doing their subconscious work, alterning sensibility and feeling.

I like the texture. I like these works as built, made, artefacts. ‘Something For The Weekend’ is a collage of images cut out from somewhere and pasted onto acrylic paint spread over canvas. The image itself is striking and maybe a little obvious. It’s the way the surface of the painting is so evident, so demonstrative, which I enjoy. It’s a little like Banksy, where the roughness of the brick or concrete wall is a vital part of the image, of the tonal effect.

I like the interplay in Alibone’s art between the airiness of the Elizabethan conceits and the tough, thickened, oil and canvas reality of the finished artefacts.

There’s more variety than I imply. See his page on for more images. But almost all of them share a similar palette, a similar approach to recycling figurative imagery, always of the human figure, with a sensuous attention to the surface, to paint, to canvas, which gives all his works a visceral immediacy.

Buy one!

To All Who Come To This Happy Place by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

To All Who Come To This Happy Place by Jonathan Alibone (by permission of the artist)

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