A response to the paintings of David Caines; arising from and interjected with, remnants of a conversation which took place between Mary Kate and David in June 2014.
The Permanent Theatre
There is an unmistakable theatricality in the paintings of David Caines. The figures in where can my loverman be? or nothing, no one around for miles are there to perform. Whether contorting into fantastical shapes, or standing, feet squarely planted on the floor, there is a sense that the space in which they find themselves is one of masquerade. Having arrived in thoroughly overblown attire, they are held to ransom by the canvas; forced to perform in a curious tableau vivant which is not of their choosing. One which plays out again and again to the abyss which envelops them. The surrounding space is often sparsely decorated – a deep black or a pale grey disrupted only by visible brushstrokes or drips of paint. It is the characters who take centre stage, and yet there is a deep permanence to this void. It pre-existed their arrival, and will outlive them too. The simplicity of this predicament: the reticent defiance of the wayfaring stranger or the delicately clasped hands of one of the ordinary monsters perching on a bench imbues these tableaux with a keen sadness.
Yet whilst we might think of theatre as a space for transformation, there is little at all that these characters can do to enact change. They exist only in their present moment which persists despite all the semiotic potency of their garb and postures. One carries his head in a wheelbarrow, another sports the head of a squid, but their condition is an obstinately liminal one; kidnapped by the brushstrokes and forced to remain in the state in which they wandered in. Looking at them, one gets the uncanny feeling that transformation is not within grasp for these figures.
MKC: Heads on/heads off – is that something you think about carefully beforehand?
DC: [The physical condition of the characters] is always a thing I have to think about – does he have a head at all for example? Do I bother with a head on this one? It’s definitely a part of the process, the heads on or heads off thing. I think it all stems from ideas similar to the predicament of the man in i know where i’m going [who wheels his head in a wheelbarrow]. We think we know where we are going. We think we have control over our own destiny and of course we don’t. And so as well as the sort of ‘what’s the relationship between these three people and why have they arrived in this particular place at this time?’ questions that these paintings throw up, I like the idea that one of them might be in a state of slight dismemberment or that something unfortunate has just been visited upon them and that is adding to the atmosphere in the room.
Then there are the recurring props. The paintings are littered with red herrings and false clues.
DC: I like people’s hands to hold things and I think when someone is holding a stick, they are either telling somebody what to do or giving a lecture or about to whack them around the head with it. There is that ambiguity. I like the idea that you make two figures and then you tie them up and then you give one a stick. It gives little triggers for narrative and then the viewer can take that where they want to go with it.
The objects which haunt these scenes occur again and again, rendered in meticulous detail: the wooden chair, the wooden stick, the park bench, the brown boots. There is a sense that these objects enjoy a permanence which the figures do not – reminiscent of similar transient predicaments enjoyed by the human condition when faced with object permanence. The joke within the paintings is undeniably on the characters. They can strive to construct their existence according to ridiculous entrapments or particular roles and belief systems. The contortionist bends himself in two, the teacher expostulates with the stick… but you could nonetheless picture the next scene in this tableau being one in which the figures have disappeared. The characters might have just wandered in, they might be in a state of dismemberment or en travesti, they might be tied up with rope. The objects will however be there after they are gone, playing out their neutrality and dogged potency. The apparent legibility of these objects – that benign park bench, for example – only serve to highlight the futility of the figures’ plight. It is a deeply existentialist one: how to construct one’s identity in the face of the absurd? Disorientated by a seemingly meaningless environment in which anything can happen, the characters exist in unending confrontation with the quest to invest these hollow surroundings with meaning. Their present existence is confirmed by their proximity to the objects and to each other; past and future however, are lost to the void.
MKC: The figures are much trapped in their condition and their costumes. It somehow defines them and yet they rarely relate to one another. Very often the characters are absolutely not looking at one another.
DC: I think that’s the sort of ambiguity that I’m after. That’s spot on. It’s like they are prepped to do something because of their costume. ‘Is he a Zeppelin pilot or an American Indian or something?’ But they’re kind of standing there and you don’t know what they’re going to do. Somebody said once “You don’t know whether they’re assassins or a welcoming committee”. There is obviously some purpose to them because of the way they are dressed up but the relationship between them is totally unclear. There is often some sort of physical connection, like a hand touching one other person or similar, because I don’t want them just to look like random people stuck together. When I started, one figure would come from a silent movie, one from an old photograph, one from an old circus flyer, but now the figures are much more composite. The top half of the torso will come from somewhere, the bottom half will be made up, the head will be from somewhere else – they are much more like a collage.
MKC: Are all the characters in the same universe? They each have bizarre and difficult entrapments but yet that same bloody chair is going to be there...
DC: Say I was a prolific playwright and all these diverse actors wanted to work with me, but then they discover “Oh God he’s doing that thing with the chair” or “I finally got to work with him and he made me hold the stick”. I think they are in that world. The characters do sort of reappear in various guises in different pictures so if there is any particular narrative it is between paintings rather than between characters in any particular painting.
In addition to the material permanence of the recurrent objects, so too there is an inherent longevity implied by their archetypal form. They serve to illustrate an immediately recognisable but often anonymous object, rendered altogether enigmatic. Whether due to the eccentricity of their figurative companions or their curious juxtaposition with other objects (a chair and a dolmen, for example) these everyday trappings of human culture become somehow monstrous. They provide a seemingly comprehensible shortcut for the viewer in their clarity, only to confound that same decipherability with a refusal to perform as expected.
DC: The objects are archetypes of what they are. That chair is an archetypal chair – you can imagine it in a Parisian cafe in 1900 yet you can still buy it today. The design is not important, it’s just a chair. I suppose that when I choose these objects they need to be like a Ladybird Book version of the object (where there would be an illustration of ‘C is for Chair’). It’s got to be that kind of chair. It’s a simple thing that is quite loaded with suggestion. There’s another picture where the chair has fallen over. It’s the theatrical thing – it’s like a prop. Once I’ve painted something and it works for me, then that’s my chair, I wouldn’t paint a different one.
It’s all to do with my needing to have security in the development of the work – I have this toolkit which I can call on like the chair or the rope or these boots. So then I can bring in something totally new – a new figure. But if that is going to come into the world then it’s got to relate to my chair, and my stick and my bits of wood. It’s got to fit comfortably in that world – otherwise it’s not coming in! At the moment I’m looking at images of Victorian dolls which might come in but they’ve got to work with the rope and the sticks – they’ve got to abide by my rules if they’re coming in. My world of painting.
Another effect of the use of archetypes relates to the depiction of male and female in the images. Irrespective of the strangeness of many of the characters – their masks or disfigurements – they always appear undeniably human. Perhaps it is in fact their constant striving to make sense of their surroundings, to relate to one another or to construct their identity which emphasises that humanity. Whilst deduction is often involved for the viewer to discern gender when faces are obscured, the painstaking attention to bodily posture found in all Caines’ paintings reveals a divide along gender lines. Where male characters often assume a hyper-masculine or theatrical pose, females frequently appear in a more pensive or even cowed attitude.
DC: It is unusual for me to paint a depiction of a woman. I think that a man in a suit can be a cipher for ‘everyman’ – it’s just this guy in a suit with a bowler hat. But with a woman, if you look at a picture there are always clues to the era or what her occupation is. It’s more complicated.
MKC: Do the recurring masks have a certain essence or meaning to you?
DC: When I first painted the masked figure [from ordinary monsters and you’ve got everything now], I knew it was something I could go back to. I enjoyed painting it. It just sort of represents this overly tall, very dominating, patriarchal character. Someone like a general or a judge with that stature and level of authority. I have to be careful with these characters, they just need to pop up every now and again. I don’t want the whole series to become some sort of illustrated history.
When I think about the way I paint some male characters like the one in humboldt’s wedding... I don’t paint them fondly. I don’t like them. If I were to try to paint lots of convincing female characters, I would find that hard to do because of the tradition of representing the female form throughout history and what that means about patriarchy and painting (the fact that women were models and they weren’t allowed to paint, and they were sex objects and that sort of thing). I suppose in my bizarre world of my paintings which is this weird set where people walk on, I’m trying to be vaguely reflective of the way that I perceive what’s wrong with the world, in that it’s mainly men who are dressing up in these silly costumes and pantomiming around and fucking things up and women are often the victims of this ridiculous patriarchal nonsense.
Watching and Waiting
If we are to think of the paintings of David Caines as being theatrical, then it becomes necessary to consider them as having a time dimension, rather than just occupying the space dimension of their canvas. In addition to our own time-based involvement in the act of looking, there is also a durational aspect to the characters. The liminal state which they occupy ensures not only an incapacitating lack of change, but moreover the implicit necessity of waiting. We are waiting and they are waiting. If we came back tomorrow, the two men in the joke would still be roped together; primed for comedy and tragedy, and altogether impotent to act.
Discussing the Theatre of the Absurd, and with particular reference to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the seminal theatrical scholar Martin Esslin once argued that ‘It is only when the last lines have been spoken and the curtain has fallen that we are in a position to grasp the total pattern of the complex poetic image we have been confronted with’ (Esslin, 1965: 11). Perhaps similarly, it is only after we the viewers have moved away from a painting that we begin to absorb the existential nature of Caines’ images.
The dull or gentle sadness which emerged when confronted with the visitors achieves a sharp edge when we have also seen trouble will find you and it even hurts when i scream. The human body, so efficient and laissez faire in untitled (bicycle series #1-#5) confronts us with an altogether different proposition when we encounter the cyclists, one of whom is bereft of his arms, the other his legs.
Thus the transformation which is so damningly out of reach for the figures on the canvas becomes instead possible for the viewer. Like snapshots in a photographer’s darkroom the images take root at the back of the mind, slowly developing over time into a residue more disquieting, more resonant than what we originally saw.
Is it the figures’ futility that we experience in this waiting game, or indeed our own? The squid-headed figure blusters on; a girl strikes a photo-finish tap dance pose. Perhaps it is in fact the waiting that is key. Suspended in this brief moment together, we become emboldened to encounter our own absurdity. To greet it fondly, with a melancholy smile.
DC: I don’t want to give a painting a title that is pretentious. I don’t want to give it a title that gives the game away or gives a story. If you think of a crazy play unfolding on stage this [the title] would be one line of dialogue just to confuse things a little bit more. I also like to suggest that the whole thing could be humorous as well.
On composite figures
DC: When I started making these works I would put these things together that are taken from different sources, (silent movie stars, old photographs etc) and then I would think, ‘people might think this painting is about the 1940s due to the things they are wearing’, and so I would think, ‘what can I put in there that would totally undermine that?’ For example, I paint two men from the 1940s so then I put a WW1 plane in the background. Then I put in a dolmen or a standing stone – they are symbols that have their own mythology attached to them. It implies ritual and other cultures doing things around these objects.
The space in the painting is important for me because it is not a window or a landscape. With the joke when I first put the standing stone in the painting I hated it. I thought ‘now it looks like they are standing in the middle of the Irish countryside or something’. I had suddenly turned it into two figures in a landscape and that wasn’t right. So quickly I needed something to come to the rescue so I put the plane crashing down into the background and suddenly it is better. As soon as you put a horizontal line on a canvas, you’ve created a horizon line and a landscape so you need to work out ways to undermine that – be it planks of wood flying around or other strategies.
MKC: When you create a figure, do you have a sense of meaning for them? Do you know why he is holding the stick?
DC: No I don’t have a back story in my mind about it. It varies; some are real composites - a real mish mash. Two different bodies, two different heads. For example in return the gift, the top half of the central figure is Harry Houdini. It’s rare that I put an actual person in there. I just really liked his arms in the image, completely restrained by his sides. The paintings are going off in a different direction at the moment. I originally had this very fussy thing about symmetrical figures in a very flat proscenium arch sort of space and painted in such a way that the painting doesn’t get in the way of the viewer reading the figures. Now the painting is more noticeable. Several recent works have planks of wood flying around in the background. I think it’s just that things are falling apart a bit. There are other things coming in which push and pull with the relationship between the figures. Maybe bigger objects or more violent things are going to happen, I don’t know...
On painterly drips
DC: The drips? Yes that is ‘a thing’. I think I do that so what when people see the picture, they are reminded that it is a painting. People thought some of the early ones I did were photos. It’s a balance between not wanting the painting to get in the way of the viewer but also to remind them that it’s a painting. I think deep down I want to be a very different painter to what I am. I really admire Willem De Kooning and artists like that. And so often I begin with a stage of painterly abandon and making a mess and then at a certain point things become more formal and I end up painting all of that out. But I do like the idea of layers because layers also remind you that it’s a flat thing. That there is one layer beneath another layer of paint. I think it’s subconscious but the paintings where there are no drips and where they are perhaps more illustrative are less successful for me.
MKC: There are quite a few trees and wooden objects in the paintings. Are trees important?
DC: I think wood is important. I think trees are really important but I’m struggling to say why. I think there are certain objects and materials which are really profound with what they symbolise but they are also neutral so they are neutral in the paintings.
The thing about trees is possibly about their longevity and the fact that they are natural. When I am painting I try to escape this sense that everything is about what is coming in the future. Everything is rushing forwards. That we should look only into the future and that everything is amazing now. I feel that culture needs to slow right down and put the brakes on. I still need to learn so much from the writers and artists of the 19th and 20th centuries and I find myself thinking that the past is the only culture that we have, because it exists. The future doesn’t exist. We need to go back and re-examine it. We still exist in nature even though as a generation we deny it. All these references to nature and trees I think is about the queasy relationship we have with nature. Nature will win in the end. We are coming along and doing our little pantomime in front of it, and this is everything that the paintings are about.
And things like a woman turning into a tree [i can hear the grass grow] or a child being menaced by tree stumps [trouble will find you] is quite surreal stuff but that is a part of the human condition... that one day you possibly will be feeding a tree.
Words © Mary Kate Connolly 2014
Images © David Caines 2014