In his new series of paintings ‘Third Nature’, Tomas Harker confronts the overlooked surrealism of contemporary life in which commonplace objects and devices are intermeshed with the untouched natural world. These are made from collages of images from varied sources, with often conflicting semiotic value systems. Sources include film screenshots, art history, iPhone photos and social media. Sources are collected for their metaphorical, symbolic or formal relationships. The subjects in this exhibition often refer to illusion. Examples can be seen in the shapes formed in the leaves, refractions in water, crops obscuring the original context, and images mediated on another surface like a tablecloth or side of a van.
The paint is applied in a direct and tactile way. Whilst remaining pictorial, the substance of the medium is brought to the fore. The paintings perform in the same physical way as the subject they represent. They have the feel of the real things they signify, the muddy water, reptilian scales, and translucent leaves; but simultaneously a record of the gesture. The renderings often elicit ambivalence and foreboding, or the sense that things are not as they seem.
Painting is a slowed down approach to images, both in the making but also in the meditation on what’s behind the image. In a time of hyperreal saturation within contemporary image consumption, Harker interrupts this pace and invites us to explore the nature of meaning in conditions of increasingly mediated experience. By reinterpreting histories and finding new associations that resist didactic interpretation, he invites a non-linear and subjective reading.
Truths Written With The Help Of Figuresby Jon Sharples
All you need is a little faith, trust, and pixie dust… or so said Peter Pan, as I was reminded when watching the 1953 Disney classic with my four-year old niece recently. Which of those three ingredients seems the most fanciful today? We live in the age of bad faith – a term borrowed from contract law to describe our shameless society in which we have become desensitised to accusations (or proof) of dishonesty, falseness, and lies. And the most celebrated new technology of the past decade is blockchains and distributed ledgers, the essence of which is a mechanism to remove the need for people to trust each other. It’s been a cliché of cultural studies for most of the time since the Peter Pan release to worry about a contemporary world ‘saturated’ with images in which our material desires, aspirations and political views are manipulated by the malign forces in control of those images for profit and power. You’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t trouble my niece with any of that, but as I watch her handle an iPad far more expertly than my dad does, I can’t help but worry about what her journey through “third nature” will be like without even the memories of the pre-internet world that my generation has.
What is this “third nature”? You may be familiar with Marx’s theory of man’s alienation from nature and Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács’ notion of a manmade, mechanistic “second nature” – that is, nature under capital, governed by laws of society like “supply and demand” and “marginal utility”, as inexorable and objective-seeming as the laws of nature themselves. When discussing this body of work and the title of this show, Tom Harker referred me to McKenzie Wark’s book Sensoria, an anthology of ‘thinkers for the twenty-first century’ with Wark’s commentary on their writings. Wark describes third nature as follows:
“History is a process in which collective human labour transforms nature into second nature to inhabit. On top of which it then builds what I call third nature made of information, which not only reshapes the social world of second nature but instrumentalises and transforms what it perceives as a primary nature in the process.”
So third nature is a new form of extractive commoditisation – not just of nature, but of social relations themselves. Once it was the men who owned the commodities who topped the rich lists but today it those who own the information. This historical shift is delightfully captured in Tom’s little painting JPG, based on a photograph of John Paul Getty III, the grandson of American oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty, who was once the richest man in the world. To cut a long and gruesome story short, in 1973 JPG III was kidnapped at the age of 16 by mafia while living in Rome. When his grandfather wouldn’t pay the $17million ransom demanded, the 'Ndrangheta demonstrated that they had not come to play by sending JPG III’s ear in the post along with a note saying that more body parts were to come if the Gettys didn’t pay up. Shortly afterwards, his grandfather agreed to pay no more than $2.2million – the maximum amount that his attorneys advised him was tax deductible – and lent the remainder to his son, who was to repay the sum at 4% interest. The resulting, earless, three-quarter portrait of JPG III taken in the immediate aftermath is a harrowing image. In Tom’s hands, depicted like someone out of the Twilight Saga or one of Elizabeth Peyton’s indie boys, the painting is a nod to the missing ears of art history and the Getty family’s pivot from oil to JPEGs twenty years later. It is a masterpiece of metaphor and wordplay, typical of Tom’s deep well of visual and cultural intelligence.
Capitalist Realism and the RCA: Is There No Alternative?Taken from the essay ' Truths Written With The Help of Figures' by Jon Sharples
Another pictorial and verbal joke plays out in Dentured Servants, with a surreal cast of characters doomed to perform their caricatured roles for all eternity, fixed in an inescapable and orderly line and at the constant call of mechanised initiation. A bit of legal and etymological history for you – an “indenture” is an agreement between two parties, particularly for indentured labour in which a person is contracted to work without salary for a specific number of years (it is estimated that between one-half and two-thirds of European immigrants to the American colonies between the 1630s and the American Revolution travelled under indentures to pay for their ticket across the Atlantic). The term comes from the medieval English "indenture of retainer" – a legal contract written in duplicate on the same sheet, with the copies separated by cutting along a jagged (toothed, hence the term "indenture") line so that the “teeth” of the two parts could later be fitted together and matched to confirm authenticity (an early form of verification replacing trust). Tom is very political but it’s not the sort of politics that wears colours, waves banners or stomps around in big boots carrying a megaphone. When discussing this work, he told me he was thinking about people being trapped their basic material needs. In previous centuries it was food, which is now cheap, but today in London it is housing and the need to pay rent that forces people to stay on the treadmill of productivity. If you were to design a system of social control or political manipulation, then our current approach to housing would be a great place to start – if you own property you almost can’t help to become right-leaning and if you don’t then you have little choice but to toe the line. Whilst at the RCA, Tom was acutely aware of a majority who did not realise their own privilege and lacked empathy for the working class. And, worse, that in many settings it felt like a breach of etiquette to speak openly about class consciousness, and so the surreal novelty of this sort of painting stands in for the conversations that have otherwise proved impossible to have.
Dont Look NowTaken from the essay ' Truths Written With The Help Of Figures' by Jon Sharples
The title of the largest work in the show – Don’t Look Now – is a direct reference to the seminal 1973 horror film of that name in which a married couple grieving the death of their young daughter by drowning are ultimately led to total ruin by their failure to read the clues that the fragmented, watery and fatally unreliable visual landscape of Venice presents to them. In the context of the painting itself, the phrase also relates to our collective compulsion to look at horrific things and our inability to look away even when we know we should. The image signals its untrustworthiness at every turn. The scale is confusing – is this a toy van amongst the weeds or the real thing? Where are we? The white van seems quintessentially English and could easily be the same one that Emily Thornberry literally had to quit the shadow cabinet for tweeting sneeringly about in 2014. But the undergrowth and the size of the leaves do not look like plants native to the UK. The boundary between the subject of the painting – death – and the object of the painting – the van – has completely disintegrated. The skeletons appear to be performing a joyous danse macabre at what has happened. The whole scene reminds me of the maniacal perversion of Crash by J.G. Ballard in which humans seek the intersection of the organic and inorganic and the blending of man and machine in the most appalling ways. It’s genuinely dark, but also funny, with the grim reaper tending more towards the comic cliché of Scary Movie than a genuinely nightmarish vision of death. It really shouldn’t work, but it obviously does, and the magic ingredient that holds it together is Tom’s exquisite paint handling. The whole narrative, such as it is, is really there as an excuse to make certain kinds of marks in paint. The gradient of the dirt on the white van is so seductive, and translates so satisfyingly well into paint, that the mind is far too distracted to quibble over the logical inconsistencies that the eyes are presented with.
Tom has spoken eloquently about the fact that while we all know that painting is often illusion, distortion and fiction, amongst the acknowledged duplicity there is the inherent honesty in the modest physical materials that paintings are made of. Paint and canvas occupy the same physical world that we do and are fundamentally relatable, down to earth, and instinctively recognisable as the sort of stuff we handle from childhood and as sharing the same material reality of own bodies and bodily functions. Paint is sensual in a way that operates involuntarily on the nervous system before the deliberate business of applying the intellect can begin.
Third NatureWriting by Tomas Harker
Certain leaves, fallen from a certain tree that lay on the verge between the forest and the meadow. They said hold a power if a ritual is performed where you dig a hole like a grave and bury yourself in them. I was laying on the verge, picking up the dead dry leaves that had fallen between the brambles.
A younger man had dug his grave in the field. He made a canopy of branches and leaves. But the leaves he used seemed too green. They said you have to stay underground for days and it changes your conscious state. You would see something else. But the man was too eager. People said it wasn't the right time. They could read the earth but he ignored the signs.
The people spoke about it with clarity, but it was unknowable without experiencing the ritual. It existed beyond the periphery; a state of presence with the infinite, where everything constructed in the mind is wiped clean. There is no conflict because the barriers have been broken down. You become close to the eternal. Close to the microbes in the soil, the stream, the life in the trees, and floating through the air. You are every plant and animal, every other person, and they are you. That is first nature.
Lying awake under a yellow summer moon. Remembering the past in the half- light, where fragments of ancient signs can still be found. It shows we are the aggregate of everything in the universe; a tiny flicker in time. Our life seems important and together but it is part of the vastness of the universe. The weight of the world doesn't change, it just reconstructs.
Limelight illuminated a musician in the centre of a stage. Some phrases seemed to shimmer over the other lines, 'Head rock and roll', 'Middle class finger', 'Do me, pencil me, do me in', and 'Spine in the bin but spirit level'.
Next a magician came on stage and performed their tricks. On a backdrop a montage was projected with a caption that read:
Between waking and sleep, being and nothing - is the twilight of hard-won insight. Lay and be careless like the clouds and mountains. In Egypt, the people didn't hold themselves above the revered animals. Eden was before we knew the snake's secret, when animal ignorance was bliss. The kingdom was and still is, no future, past or fantasy. Built over it is the wipe-down-tower of Babel, paranoid and sterile. It is Bataille's sclerosis of polite society. The style is a posture, what free speech is to an actor's lines. It's the manners, its second nature.
With lack of imagination, took your own life down a wishing well. End up like Daniel Johnston, Casper the friendly ghost. To fast for the devil. Reminded to suffer for the pleasure, and to gently cultivate your own neurosis. Down sixteen
Sambuca's and seduce Medusa.
One last blowout,
Before the next big blowout,
After the last big blowout.
Signs rained from the clouds floating above, signs reigned. Alphabets cast a drag net with its language ad infinitum. Weaving thread through the mind and the monitors; a tentacular Trojan dream sequence. Magic signs cast their spells. Signals of schizophrenia media. Who is moving the cursor? The cure is the curse is the cure is the curse. The cure is the dis-ease, not the cheap dopamine, the slow death.
Attention is a form of endurance, to pay attention is an act of devotion. To us, users, it's a flight simulation through a spell of strange weather. Third nature.
Psychotropic light was like the ancient signs in the twilight. Stray signals caught in aerials. That punctures a hole in the surface. Perforated drum. Light that casts a different shadow. The patient forgets their prescription. The story has a strange sentiment, where the feeling defies the fact. It's a conflict that saves a thousand souls. It's rich meaning with no resolution. Turns the tables, senses the beauty in the grotesque. A painting that can cut the distance. Freshly cut. A no-ones rose.
Click here to read the full essay 'Truths Written With The Help Of Figures' by Jon Sharples
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