Just as the Visigoths sacked Rome, painting won’t fall by itself. For it to be removed as the jewel of human creative expression, it will have to be bastardised by a painter producing work so utterly artless that it can no longer function as a form. Ladies and gentleman, with William Nugawela’s new work ‘Untitled’ (2017), I think we have our man. In no small words, I am confident he will come to be known as the face of an era that has seen painting decline as the chief medium of art.
I want to start by saying that Nugawela has produced work in the past which I have enjoyed. His ouvre, while admittedly small, shows signs richness, rigour, and above all potential. But with this new offering, things have gone horribly wrong.
If you have eyes, you probably think this work looks a lot like a Cy Twobly. Mostly, that’s because it is a poor imitation of one. Jerry Saltz would likely label this lazy zombie formalism; I’m willing to call it fraudulent plagiarism. The piece isn’t just unoriginal, it actually condemns originality, in a way that makes you think there might never be any point painting anything ever again.
Even putting this to one side, the formal elements of the piece are objectively mismatched. I’m tempted to label the play of elements here simply as ‘trash’, but in the interest of art-theoretical professionalism, I’ll use the term ‘antithetical’, with the thesis being that discordant expectations are aroused by his hues. Pastel primaries are interspersed with disflavourful tertiaries and, sometimes, black. The lack of glamor in the work alerts you to a destruction of beauty. The juxtapositions and the compositional rhythms of the colours, jarring ever so slightly, won’t resolve into unity no matter how long you look at them. What’s going on? Does the artist aim at order and miss, or does he try, and succeed, to destroy it? It’s as if you can’t quite get started looking, and can only stop only by force of will. At length, beauty does not arrive. The painting’s only relief is of disappointment. This isn’t aestheticised grief in the mode of Anselm Kiefer, either. It is pretentious posturing by perfunctory design, whose only theme is jejune suburban anguish.
The textual overlay is so truly awful I honestly don’t know what to make of it. Long has it been the way of the truly talentless painter to slap words over their art in the hope it might make it ironic or sardonic. What frauds like this don’t realise is that innovation takes time and talent. Twombly didn’t scribble ‘APOLLO’ over his canvas because he had run out of ideas. Nugawela did, and it comes off like a spoken word poem through the middle of a jazz song. Tacky, and unwelcome. The familial phrase is so emetic I barely even want to deconstruct it. ‘I love my family’ is a buzzfeed tag, not a valid aesthetic sentiment. I’ve also seen no evidence that the artist is literate, meaning the writing was probably put down on command by a team of assistants. The fact he isn’t executing his own work makes all too much sense.
Content wise, Nugawela takes refuge in the postmodern trick of burying lack of meaning under abstraction. Formalist experiments are fine, but they have to be good, and this painting is not good. The son of a Sri Lankan émigrée, and with Chinese heritage, I refuse to believe Nugawela has no relevant political emotion to express through his work. I’m not saying he has to clumsily force some polemic of identity, but surely he can give us more of a unique perspective on what it means to be Australian than this. Possibly, the truth is that having lived in the suburbs for the past year, the artist just doesn’t have anything to write about. As with so many artists who come from money, there just isn’t enough reality to plumb. Gone are the violent, childlike strokes of his earlier work; he has simply run out of things to say. The only emotion it can possibly elicit in the viewer is a vague feeling of “We’ve come to this?” and perhaps the reluctant conclusion “It seems so.”
I don’t like to hate artists, or their work. That being the case, I reached out to Nugawela’s representation after viewing this piece in order to get an interview. I suppose what I wanted was some vindication. I hoped desperately that there would be some Magrittean trick to the whole thing, some self-reflexive facet that I had missed. I didn’t need him to explain himself, but I wanted some sort of exegetical codeword that might open things up like a magic eye. Needless to say, my meeting with the artist did not go well.
His demeanor was a lousy imitation of the oracular blankness of Andy Warhol, whom he presumably adores. Like most everything about Nugawela, the adoption of a reticent persona is both tired, derivative, and distasteful. His blank stares called to mind Degas’s remark to Whistler: ‘You behave as though you had no talent’. In this case, it feels somewhat more apt. The choice to accept a meeting with a reviewer and then not say anything is similar to the John Lennon sit in, and the message was clear: let the work speak for itself. The issue here is that the work doesn’t have much to say.
After a few minutes of complete silence from the artist I was ready to leave. Clutching at straws and desperate for any quote, I asked him to at least tell me who is influences were. He gurgled, fell over onto his back, started crying, and pointed to his own head. Oh, fuck off.
Words by Harry Peter Sanderson.