Water-Boarding And Romanticism: Tom De Freston Interviewed

Christiana Spens talks to the literary-inspired artist, delving further into the horror, politics and aesthetics of violence that are the subject matter of his most recent paintings

Tom de Freston’s body of work is a chaotic-seeming world of the grotesque and the shocking, where the darkest aspects of human nature emerge in frames and tones of comedy and tragedy, animation and rigidity, fusing an adventurous and provocative imagination with insights into a recognisable real world. His canvases have depicted Shakespearean heroes and villains in grotesque, and very modern, environments, where a sense of acute claustrophobia expands and compounds with each new room compacted in canvas. There is a careful combination of brilliant imagination, of testing the very limits of human freedom and desire, along with spaces that are prison-like and oppressive. In each canvas there is a struggle between environment and desire, between ambiguous characters, between beauty and horror.

In De Freston’s most recent works, these conflicts are brought to a new crescendo, and a fresh relevance brought to modern preoccupations, secrets, and shame. Paintings concerned with water-boarding, public (and private) violence, and ideas of dehumanisation and pain, all follow logically from his previous work, and bring the uncanny connections between Shakespearean themes of human cruelty and dark magic, to situations that reference the contemporary iconography of terrorism and warfare. The spectacles of violence, whether inspired by Shakespeare or Abu Ghraib, are consistently horrifying and fascinating; as viewers we are challenged by these twin sensations of revulsion and interest, of recognition and distance, and by the implications of these reactions for our wider culture that seems to promote a sensationalism of this performed violence. De Freston, rather than exploit that cultural, and perhaps human tendency, allows us to step back and realise how horrifying that behaviour is (rather than simply the acts of torture themselves).

‘You can make it drink’ is clearly inspired by images that have emerged from the War on Terror, and public debate about the use of water-boarding and torture during conflict. Why did you decide to start referencing these subjects, and why in the context of your other theatre-inspired canvases?

Tom de Freston: The nod to water-boarding in my work first came about in 2009 when I was helping to direct a disastrous production of Macbeth in Cambridge. In the production we had the witches water-boarding Macbeth. I then referenced it again in a series of drawings and a couple of canvases for the body of Shakespeare images I made in 2010-11; so it has always been tied to my wider body of theatre-inspired paintings. It is interesting that both themes emerged in my work at the same time. I don’t think this is a coincidence, as the theatrics of conflict and violence are what concern me.

A broader context is worthwhile here. I started my Fine Art Foundation course on September 11th 2001, and remember walking into my friend’s sitting room at the end of the day to see the events unfold on his TV. In that sense my artistic development has coincided with the complex ramifications of that day and the shift in the global political landscape that has followed. Water-boarding may not be the most horrific or inhumane thing to have arisen during this time, but its use is troubling. President Bush infamously claimed it was not a form of torture, despite the clear psychological and physical suffering that it induces. Even if we accept the euphemistic term – ‘interrogation technique’ – there are still huge problems with the process. Firstly, historical evidence would suggest that in most cases use of force to gain intelligence tends to lead to flawed information. Secondly, the Bush/Blair War on Terror became a broader ideological mission to promote supposedly Western values of democracy and human rights. It seems ironic that it is exactly these values that were forsaken when using techniques such as water-boarding.

All of this might seem to imply that paintings such as ‘You can make it drink’ are explicitly political. I hope they are not. I don’t think painting can, let alone should, be didactic. Rather than conveying some particular ethical stance on the specifics of water-boarding I wanted to make images which fit into a broader history of depictions of violence. My interest lies in depicting what humans are capable of doing to each other. Water-boarding is interesting in a visual sense, because there is a theatricality in its staging yet the manner in which is damages a victim is beyond sight.

Terrorism and war are often quite spectacular, especially in modern times, where media censorship is (arguably) less effective in the West, and so there is a huge audience for violence, as well as complex propaganda agendas and interests. By turning these images into art, what are you saying about this tendency for the media to sensationalise real-life violence, compared to the dramatisation of (not real-life) violence in theatre?

TF: In some ways I think media censorship in the West has grown over the last thirty years. Don McCullin was refused press accreditation by the Thatcher government in 1982, presumably due to fears that he would photograph whatever he saw uncensored by political or national bias. In Afghanistan and Iraq photojournalists are embedded within the army, primarily to ensure their safety, but surely resulting in limitations on the breadth and depth of coverage.

Of course, counter to that is the rise of the citizen as journalist, where social media and cameras on phones have allowed for the mass production and dissemination of photographs depicting events from the frontline. (As seen in the Middle East’s Arab Spring, and crucially in Syria. Though these images do not hold as much weight as ‘official’ media images.) I think the relationship between images of real life violence in the media and images of fictional violence in culture is an interesting one. In computer games, film, theatre and art in particular violence has become sensationalised to the point of being pornographic, in that any relationships between cause and effect, moral and ethical values and context are all disregarded for the sake of shock. I have no interest in shock and if I did then something as tame as painting, in comparison to the visceral nature of performance, would be a strange choice of medium.

The biggest worry is that as a society we have potentially become anaesthetised to violence. Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ tackles this, looking at the television as a medium that feeds us a constant stream of real and fictional images of violence. Since then, the rise of twenty-four hour news coverage, social media and the internet has exacerbated the problem on an exponential scale. Images of violence now come at us as a constant stream from a vast array of sources, with the impact surely being that the layering of images culminates in a white noise, the mass repetition enacting a form of cancellation and resulting in empathy fatigue. The distressing reality is that even with all the images we are presented with on a daily basis a vast majority of conflicts across the world are given sporadic, or barely any, media attention.

I am not sure if my paintings are looking to say anything in particular about this whole process, but they are hopefully trying to do something other than present violence for its own sake. I don’t want violence to ever be the central subject of the work, but rather to be a player in a broader human drama. Yet at the same time I want to ensure there is no overt agenda to the work. Avoiding those two opposing problems, which I see as the central problems of violence in the media and depicting violence in culture, is critical to the works’ potential success.

First you painted canvases inspired by Shakespeare’s scenes of violence, now you take international politics and war as your subject: do you consider your Shakespeare paintings as a kind of apprenticeship with the Bard, which has given you the insight to tackle modern day subjects of violence and human cruelty?

TF: I think the two subjects have always been linked together in my work. When I was explicitly focusing on Shakespeare as a source I always had modern day subjects of violence and cruelty in my mind, and similarly whilst I have been focusing more explicitly on images of conflict Shakespeare – and more broadly theatre – have continued to be important reference points.

There is a danger that having made a large body of work directly related to a figure as iconic as Shakespeare that people presume his influence must be all encompassing. That said, Shakespeare’s best Tragedies are a brilliant start point for anyone wanting to engage with the potential for humans to be flawed, cruel animals, particularly when directed by ambition or ideology. The body of Shakespeare paintings also introduced me to Sarah Kane and Akira Kurosawa amongst others, who have had a direct influence on the work.

Prior to Shakespeare I produced a body of paintings for a Leverhulme-funded residency which took Milton’s Paradise Lost as a source, a project which has been equally as important to recent canvases, as more broadly have Ovid, Dante and the bible. Whilst literature and theatre have been central resources for my work, art history has been the most important source of inspiration. In regards to violence; Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Rubens, J. L. David, Gericault, Delacroix, Picasso, Bacon, De Kooning and Daniel Richter are the obvious examples that spring to mind.

All these references, along with current and historical episodes of violence function like a compost heap, from which fragments can be borrowed and re-contextualised. I always have in the back of my head this pretentious idea of the process being a bit like that of Dr. Frankenstein, in which forms are constructed from fragments of matter.

The inclusion of a canvas featuring water-boarding in the same series as a distressed-looking creature in a bath (in a claustrophobically domestic space) suggests some connection between domestic and international power struggles and divisions… Do you see similarities between internal divisions and conflicts, and a country’s behaviour in the international arena?

TF: It is probably worthwhile answering by again giving some wider context. The paintings selected for the two shows has come from a body of paintings I have been working on for the past two years. The actual collection we have chosen from is from the last 12-18 months. There are about 30 large canvases. The horse headed figures keep appearing and as such are the central protagonist. I want the paintings to feel like they are fragments from a single world, as if the viewer has been given a series of windows onto a broken, non-linear narrative, or scenes from an unknown play. The paintings act more like a collection of poems than a novel or a play, in that each painting is independent, but they look to come together as a united whole.

I am interested in creating a type of mythology, so that all the nods to art history, literature, theatre, historical events and current affairs hopefully become echoes rather than the central subject. With this in mind I am very interested in readings, which build relationships between the works. I have tried to purposefully created repetitive iconography. Horse heads, Golems, chessboards-as-stages and architectural devices, pot plants, light bulbs, Penrose tessellating patterns, weather systems, cyan blue, windows, doors, shadows and masks are amongst the motifs that reoccur. Notions such as the Verfremdungseffekt and the Uncanny are important. I am wary of throwing about fashionable theories as it tends to be what people do to try and justify their work, but I do feel that the literature around both of these notions broadly encapsulates what I am trying to do with aspects of the work. By creating a lexicon of reappearing signs I want to create a situation where scenes feel both simultaneously familiar and strange to a viewer. The original German term for The Uncanny is Das Unheimliche, which can more literally be translated to mean The Unhomely. I feel this term best describes what I want to happen in the images.

So, yes, I see a clear link between the image of the figure in a bath and the image of a figure being water boarded, and more broadly between domestic/internal struggles vs. international power struggles. This is not to say I think this link is explicit in the two works mentioned, but rather that they tap into that broader connection. It is perhaps worth saying a little more about the bathroom canvas, as a roundabout way of trying to answer the question. That work links back to a few previous (non horse headed) paintings I have done of figures in bathrooms. In all the work the architecture of the internal space is under threat from the arrival of an external organic and corrosive system, which gives nods to weather systems and abstract expressionism.

The figure in the bath had both J. L. David’s ‘Marat’ in mind and images of the Deposition by Rembrandt and Rubens. The figure on the loo, as with the figure in Mother Wept, gives a nod to the Francis Bacon triptych of George Dyer’s death. The picture, like the water-boarding images, is all about the relationship between the body and water. Here the safety and privacy of a bath is interrupted by the arrival of a weather system from off stage. It is important the collection of canvases have both these domestic scenes, where a type of space and action described is familiar, and to sit these alongside images where the space is less determined and the action less familiar.

‘A pity’ and ‘Raft’ recollect ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ by Géricault (1818 – 1819), itself a revolutionary and Romantic work. What impact did it have on your work?

TF: 1819 feels like a pivotal year. It was the year Goya moved into La Quinta Del Sorda and started his black paintings. It was the year Keats wrote his spring Odes and I think it might have been the year Frankenstein was first published. ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ is a key staging point in the History of painting. It is often labelled as the last great statement of History Painting as the dominant genre of the medium. I think the labelling of it as Romantic by Historians is unhelpful, but then the labelling of work from the period as either Classical or Romantic is limiting and unhelpful anyway. It is true that much of its spirit fits with what has been called Romantic, but much of its construction is equally close to the Neo Classical model exemplified by J. L. David. Beyond the boldness of subject matter and the socio political context of the work it is hugely impress formally.

Most early 19th century History Paintings from France and more widely Europe had been composed in a manner similar to David’s ‘Oath of the Horati’, staging action across a picture plane neatly divided and organised by architectural forms. Gericault manages to stage the action across, up and through the picture plane, by structuring the action across two diagonals. From bottom left to top right is the diagonal of hope, rising from the Pieta like pose at the foreground eventually through to the climax of the hopefully waving aloft figure beaconing the boat on the horizon. From bottom right to top left is the diagonal of logic, a corpse directs us towards a cluster of talking men below the billowing sail that seems destined to take the raft into the mouth of the stormy waves. It is the tension between these two diagonals, depicting a moment in flux and the dramatic crux of the narrative, that make the image so powerful. It is that compositional structure which I have stolen in two Raft paintings for this series, and in previous canvases, and it is this structure, which is most important to me. The works wider historical significance as a high symbol of French Romanticism and the ideologies and political and revolutionary rumblings of Europe, and particularly France, at that moment in time can’t be ignored, but are of less relevance to my appropriation of the painting. In one of the images I have set this structure inside, in what appears to be a stage setting. In the other the image the structure has been doubled and flipped to create a symmetry, which in turn forms a flat pattern across the surface. I was interested in playing with the boundaries between exterior and interior spaces and in staging a scene in which an entire raft of figures appear to be repetitions of the same character.

Would you say that your own art is in some ways in the (French) Romantic tradition, given its concern with rebellion, injustice, theatre and power dynamics?

TF: I look at a lot of Romanticism and see pomposity, egotism, pretension and waffle. But then a lot of artists who would be associated with the European Romantic tradition are hugely important to my work. The Kantian notion of the placing of the individual at the centre of their own world, Friedrich through to Rothko and the exploration of the sublime, in particular the individuals relationship to nature, Gericault, Delacroix and Manet (then through to abstract expressionism) and the re-liberation of the expressive ability of paint from the stiffing of the academies, the language and ideas in the Spring Odes of Keats, the vision of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Turner’s landscapes are all things which are ascribed the label of Romantic and which have had a big influence on my thinking. I think I certainly used to be far more of a Romantic idealist, particularly when I was making purely abstract works. I had a tattoo of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and was convinced that the sole role of painting was to provide some kind of transcendental experience and escape from tangible reality. I am certainly far more cynical and doubting now and far less convinced of the power of painting, or any art form, to offer up theoretical solutions or spiritual experiences. But I do still believe that works of art can be part of a wider network of experiences and ways of thinking and seeing that can help shift and change the structures of our society. This is quite an idealistic, optimistic and Romantic hope.

By exaggerating the visual expression of pain, do you think you capture the feeling of it better?

TF: I think we have become anaesthetised to images of pain, through an exposure to a mass of images of extreme violence and suffering both in reality and fiction. So an exaggeration of pain, or any display of pain does not necessarily equate directly to any effective communication of pain, certainly not in terms of stimulating fear or pity. It is a generalisation, but I think that a lot of the emotional responses to images of suffering are superficial or presentations to fulfil social expectations. This may be a harsh assessment and perhaps is a comment on me as opposed to a broad social truth. I do think, however, that if we want to communicate suffering to a viewer, if we want to achieve Pathos, then we need to find other more indirect routes. I think there are a number of ways of achieving this, most notably repetition, comedy and absurdity.

In terms of repetition I tend to think of the Warhol prints of car crashes, where he presents a grid of screen prints of the same image repeated, with only subtle shifts in tone and image clarity as a result of the printing process. Confronting the image for the first time it washes over us, as images from newspapers, screen prints and most of Warhol’s work tends to. It is a dead statement, which we can read and comprehend, but which induces no feeling or reaction, it has a dearth of expressive qualities. As we move across the row and down the columns a shift takes place, we become aware that we are feeling nothing, that we are viewing the image superficially, as if a row of soup cans, as a mere statement on commodification. We become aware of the paradox between this reaction and the content of the work, an image of a person lying dead in a car, a real person. I can’t think of a less pretentious phrase, but what take places is akin to a form of emotional algebra, where the relationship between our lack of feeling and the realisation of this lack, results in a guilt that induces horror and pity. I try to use repetition, with single canvases and across multiple canvases, with this, amongst other things, in mind.

Comedy is a useful tool, and the relationship between comedy and tragedy is key. I hope that in some paintings the horses heads are comic. I want people to find them absurd, foolish, ridiculous, to laugh at them. But a similar contradiction takes place to that induced by repetition. The laughter at a situation and context, which however caricatured or comic, is full of suffering, hopefully causes an uncomfortable dialogue between two sets of emotions. I hope that both devices come together across the canvases. Whilst the horse headed character is foolish, unreal, caricatured, childish and crude, I want the viewers, over the course of multiple canvases, to build up a relationship with the characters, to care about them, to believe in them as things with emotions and to be concerned with their plight. Hopefully what happens is that at first the horse headed characters are a type of other, an unreal, inhuman thing which we can’t and don’t feel any desire to relate to. On a simpler level I think something like this happens when we view images of people involved in conflict, we find ways to enact a process of ‘othering’ on them. Yet hopefully after seeing multiple canvases a reversal happens, where rather than seeing all the things that make the characters other we start to see them in relation to ourselves. If this happens then hopefully we understand that the suffering of the character, however much they are horses headed, painted, foolish and crude, is something we should care about.

I think all of this fits into the connection to theatre in the paintings. Beyond actual collaborations with directors and productions the works are clearly inherently theatrical. Scenes are staged. I often start by staging performances and photographing set scenes, which are then the basis for drawings, which provide the foundations of the paintings. At other points I will build small sets or use collage and digital collage to construct scenes and spaces. It is not a direct observation or analytical shift from observed reality. The process in which the images are put together is synthetic, in that it is constructed in the way a set designer or director devices a scene form a play. The faces are theatrical, false, mask like, puppet like. The action is theatrical, acted out and clearly performed for an audience rather than trying to imitate any actual event. Everything about how the paintings are formed, painted, constructed and viewed is theatrical rather than offering up a pretence of a mirror on the world. It is this unreality that is central to the emotive impact of the works, which tries to create a feeling which is real and to induce empathy by its very lack of reality.

Collingwood once wrote that art is moral, and valuable, through telling the truth about society – its secrets and darkness:

“The artist… as spokesman for his community, the secrets he must utter are theirs. The reason why they need him is that no community altogether knows its own heart… For the evils which come from that ignorance, the poet as prophet suggests no remedy, because he has already given one. The remedy is the poem itself. Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness.” (Collingwood, 1938, 317)

… Do you agree with Collingwood on this point, and is there a conscious effort, in your own practise, to expose horror and violence? Or, are you fascinated, independent of ideas about value and morality, by the sensationalism and entertainment of violence, and how people interact accordingly?

TF: I think we need to be very careful about think art can or should offer up any clear moral code. I worry about art that tries to be instrumental or moralistic, I am just not sure it works. I am certainly not sure that painting can offer up the kind of clarity that the notion of the artist as spokesperson of moralist would suggest, it is too inherently ambiguous. I don’t believe in the painter as any kind of authorial voice, and I certainly make images with that thought in mind. By which I mean I think that it is pointless trying to produce paintings that articulate some premeditated notion, it doesn’t work. So what I try to do is take the role of the reader/viewer, making sure that at every stage of making the painting I am engaging with it, trying to work out what it is about and making decisions based on that. I always worry that sounds a bit mystical, but actually it is very pragmatic.

It is a case of trying to make sure you are open and fluid to what a work can be about, and that you are making decisions based on what is happening in the painting rather than based on what you want it to do. As such the notion of the artist as a guiding force is flawed. But the notion of the artwork as potentially moral value is of interest. It is also worth pointing out that I don’t believe that this openness means that a work is a totally blank canvas, which can be interpreted in any way the viewer sees fit. Any interpretation has to fit with the work, which means that a broad array of readings can work, but not an infinite array, there are right and wrong readings and associations. With this in mind I hope that the canvases deal with violence and cruelty in a way that get people to consider ideas about the morality of images of violence and cruelty, and more broadly the consequences.

I have some other reservations though. I am making images that draw inspiration directly from contemporary and historical instances of conflict, from episodes which have led to suffering, pain and death. It is all well making intellectual claims about the worthiness of the work, about its ability to contain some moral value. But the reality is that they are likely to be viewed by a narrow, quite elite audience. They are going to be exhibited in a commercial gallery, and the mains aims are likely to focus around interest, sales and critical acclaim. What actual worth this has in terms of moral value or social worth is highly questionable, the audience is too narrow. I find this uncomfortable and feel there is a risk of the whole process being exploitative. I have some things in mind to try and temper these problems, but listing them is likely to just sound like an exercise in easing guilt. I think if art of any kind has the ability to have any true impact or to induce any kind of change then it needs to find a way to appeal to a broader audience. The problem is that a lot of art (which is intended to be moral) is often so esoteric that it has no ability to communicate to a broader audience. If I am honest I am aware that the whole process risks being a selfish game of egotistically believing that something might be having an impact when it might just be white noise or the equivalent of shouting into the abyss.

On a broad level though art is important. ‘Guernica’ is a clear example in terms of exposing the horrors of humanity. But it is only one player in a broad network of players, and ultimately it is politics and communities that make changes, not art.

What are your views about sensationalism, art and violence? Do you see yourself as having a responsibility to paint in a certain way, with a certain moral structure – or do you believe in art for the sake of art, in the more Wildean sense?

TF: In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde states ‘all art is quite useless’. It is the term most frequently used to paraphrase his views on aestheticism, or more specifically art for arts sake. It is a presumption and an ideal that directed much of the production and consumption of 20th Century art. It is the foundations of High Modernism in painting, the belief that painting should focus and celebrate on its unique properties of paint being spread across a flat surface. It is the Kantian belief in the autonomy of the thing in itself. It suggests that painting, and more broadly art, can and should only be self reflexive and considered the mechanics of its own existence. I don’t believe this is necessary or possible. This is not to say that I don’t think that such values should be placed centre stage in any reading or appreciation of art. I believe that the formal content of the work comes first, and that a work can only be as successful as these values, but I just don’t believe the can or do exist in isolation.

It is worth pointing to a less quoted passage for Wilde’s preface, ‘all art is at once surface and symbol, those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril’. Wilde is acknowledging that art by its nature will always offer up associations beyond its aesthetic content… When I am making or viewing my own paintings I don’t think they can ever be totally closed objects and they will always be offering up connections to the outside world. As discussed before I neither believe in some authorial voice of the artist as godlike figure or gospel, offering up a clear moral message. But I believe in the idea of the artwork as an object, which will open up a dialogue with the viewer, not a dialogue where anything goes, but with a series of signs that can be read in a range of ways. As any reading works its way outwards from the canvas it is important to constantly test it against the work itself, to check it comes from the work and it not just the projected fantasy of the view.

Which brings me to the question of whether I feel a duty to paint in a particular way or to make certain types of images. On a simple level I know I want to paint, and that I want to paint images and that I want those images to tell stories in a way unique to painting. That comes first. With the subject matter of recent work I do feel a responsibility, or at the least feel I understand that there is a danger that the work is drawing from and dealing with (amongst other things) events which of real human suffering. But there is a two-fold danger of trying to be too pious or moral.

Firstly the entire process of making a painting is, and has to be, open to constant shifts and changes and surprises. It is not possible to make work that communicates some preconceived idea. Secondly, art that tries to be didactic, outwardly moral or instrumental tends to be worthy but flawed artistically. As such there is a certain loss of control, which means you have to make the images you make and then put them out into the world and hope that they are part of a network of conversations which is positive in its impact rather than negative. I again point to the fact that at present it would be fairly arrogant and naive to believe that the works involvement in such a network was at all significant.

Tom de Freston’s work is currently on display at The Globe, with a new exhibition titled, The Charnel House, opening at Breese Little on November 12

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