Damien Meade, Frontier Psychiatry, oil on linen on board, 2011
There is a difference between a head and a face. The head is an entity which features the face as one part of it (in addition to the forehead, the ears and neck).The head is the carrier of the face, while the face is the site which individualizes a head.
In Damien Meade’s painting Frontier Psychiatry, a pair of eyes - not unlike the plastic versions used in taxidermy - are enough to associate an undefined object with a head. Surrounded by clay tentacles, the eyes are set in the very center of the sculpted object. These piercing eyes indicate the presence of a head - a shapeless head, but a head nonetheless.
Damien Meade, Untitled II, oil on linen on board, 2010
Meade’s painting Untitled II, on the other hand, shows a head with no recognizable features or signs of a face. It is impossible to say where the back or the front is and if such categories are even helpful in describing what we see.
Some areas of the head have been patched up with cut strips of clay. Gaping holes are visible while others have been covered up. The object reveals skeletal structures and fleshy parts. Thin wooden sticks have been inserted into the lower part of the area facing us - jutting out like marking poles on rugged soil in an attempt to hold together pieces of the whole.
Writing about the “uncanny”, Sigmund Freud stated:"Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist…all these have something particular uncanny about them, especially when…they prove capable of independent activity in addition." The uncanny provokes our imagination: it presents us with something disturbingly alive.
And then there is Meade’s process: he first sculpts these heads out of clay and other available materials and then he transforms his arrangement into a painting. One could go on and talk about how the tactile quality of Meade’s paintings and his representation of the glistening and slightly wet surfaces of sculpted clay have found a true equivalent in his handling of paint. Paint and clay have formed an alliance in Meade’s paintings - a highly animated alliance of shapes and surfaces that seem to fluctuate and assume new forms each time we look back at his paintings.
Damien Meade, I understand, oil on linen on board, 2011
But I would like to break the circle of art analogies and references here and step out into current world affairs, namely the way that the terrorist organization IS, or Islamic State, celebrates violence through social media on its rampage through Syria and Iraq.
When I came across Meade’s paintings, I could not help but think of the uncanny reaction they trigger and not only because some of his paintings take on the gruesome appearance of severed heads. I know they are not severed heads, but then they might as well just be exactly that: violated body parts.
After the events of 9/11, artists and art critics alike asked themselves how their practice would be affected - if at all - by the attacks and the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Over all and with only very few exceptions, painting just went on by dealing what it cherishes the most: itself. And things happening in the distance, in foreign countries, were left undisturbed and kept at a distance. But what happens ‘there’ has no relevance ‘here?’
Damien Meade, Un-Ghott, oil on linen on board, 2012
Reports about the use of brutal punishments carried out by members of Islamic State against religious minorities and other Sunni groups in Iraq have been pouring in almost daily in the past few weeks. I thought of Meade’s paintings in relation to this because they perfectly encapsulate acts of creation and violence.
Meade’s painting Un-Ghott represents a toothed and clothed object. The inserted teeth (or what I assume to be teeth) assign the sculpture such attributes as jaws and a mouth. The draped cloth is an accessory that either decorates this piece or that strengthens its overall structure by preventing it from falling apart (a wound that needs cover). No matter what our reading is and how much we would like to separate these paintings from any specific world events, Meade’s work offers the possibility to consider painting (and sculpting) as a violent act: forms that are shaped, imprints that are left, paint that is squeezed, mixed and pushed around, visions that are imposed.
Members of IS destroying a 3,000 year old Assyrian statue in Syria (May 2014)
The painting’s title Un-Ghott might refer to the German “Gott” and the prefix “un-” which could be translated as “Non-God” or a god without mercy. Aside from killing hundreds if not thousands of people, Islamic State has been systematically destroying relics, mosques, shrines and religious artifacts in their conquered areas. If their god or “Un-Gott” had a face, it would be a particularly ugly face that has nothing in common with any of the existing deities worldwide.
Damien Meade’s work points to the many options and strategies contemporary painting can employ. It can be referential, observational, abstract, symbolic, metaphoric, ambiguous, ironic, political, etc. No matter what it is, it does not have to turn its back on issues that go beyond art even when you believe that its sole concern and purpose is art.