Saturday, 13 June 2020

Paul Housley, The Poets Elbow

Toby Upson breaks free from the lockdown to see some actual real life art - Paul Housley's visceral paintings in his show The Poets Elbow at Belmacz in Mayfair, London.

Turning off Oxford Street I was almost flattened by a portly fellow on a mid-afternoon run. (though describing his pace as a run is pushing it somewhat.) Writ large on his felt-grey t-shit ‘Fuck The Tories.’ And adorning his hands, dayglo, DAYGLO marigolds. Strange encounters have been a daily part of my lockdown, and I’m sure I am not alone in this. Glitchy Zoom calls, hit and run postmen, shit-show online exhibitions, and mounting tensions with flatmates who have left their dirty dishes on the side, again! After 77 days of confinement in my 2.5 x 4m bedroom/office/gym/studio, I am finally outside and on my way to see some paintings. None of that HD backlit stuff, some real life oil on canvas, paintings. Paul Housley’s exhibition The Poets Elbow at Belmacz to be precise. 

Paul Housley works with the stuff that is paint. Objects in themselves, paintings do not get much grittier than this. Drawn in and spat out, I spend my first five minutes flopping around the small gallery space; overwhelmed, like a pig in shit - or to be more precise an art hoe who hasn’t been in a white cube for about three months - bathing in the sheer physicality of the PAINTINGS!!!

Paint Bores (2020), a mighty diptych, is the work that opens the show. Its presence is announced not only by its sheer size but by its rapturous surface. The painting depicts four male figures, drunk and sweaty, cast against a toxic yellow background. Their eyes baggy, their teeth rotten. Their faces conveying a life burnt away: gambled on a barely imagined future, one dreamed up in the lonely lonely hours when one is cast adrift in the studio (to paraphrase the texts in the exhibitions accompanying book). The group has a powerless presence. Details such as a painterly ‘punk’ pin badge and cliche ‘I ’ banner give me the impression that this band was once hot stuff (think 1D with added east end grunge), but now, in their dishevelled state, their only audience are the regulars down at the Poets Elbow; that sticky six-story inn, two streets behind the main road - you know the place, the pub that doesn’t do white wine. Exuberant jabs of oil give each figure a recognisable ego. Caricatures of Monet and Van Gogh, whose ear has been dissected by the join in the diptych, are positioned in the centre of the scene. They are flanked by a one-eyed Guston and a bleary Pollock. As a painter whose focus is the stuff of paint, Housley’s formal handling calls to mind the bold styles practised by these ‘masters.’ But rather than leading to pure autonomy Housley’s twisted faces pastiche any notion of high art, sending my mind running. 

Paul Housley, Paint Bores, 2020, oil on canvas, 154 x 244cm

After a while Paint Bores spits me out. As I spin around the gallery, a full 180 degrees, the double-faced figure of The Embracer (2020) greets me. A wrestler, donning nothing but leatherette Speedos and matching boots, fills an ill-defined ring. In stark contrast to the thickly painted busts of Paint Bores, The Embracer is so painterly any macho associations with wrestling disintegrate. Thin layers of ghostly oil reveal every tentative brushstroke, every sleight of hand. I am particularly drawn to the trembling marks Housley uses to flesh out his protagonist. Rather than opting for a fully constituted body, this approach creates a duality: is the figure a mirage with a disembodied arm, or a meaty giant too massive to fully take in, the cellulite around his stomach spilling out from those tight black briefs. This translucency strips the scene of any shallow theatrics, that are so evocative of my pre-pubescent years being forced to passively gaze at WWE wrestlers spewing nonsensical ‘big-talk.’ Rather than relying on TV performativity, Housley foregoes a midground and uses triangular forms to emphasise his figures presence. This immediacy is reinforced by the strong horizontal band of beige at the bottom of the composition which places me firmly in The Embracer’s pictorial space. Am I in the ring!? Just the thought is enough to make me feel faint…

Paul Housley, The Embracer, 2020, oil on canvas, 40 x 30cm

I have never been one to face off with a triangular Goliath. In my teens, WWE was a shallow bore rather than a captivating epic. Back then I much rather play Peeping Tom, peering into the scandalous lives of celebrities, sniffing out the ‘dirty side of glamour.’ And of course, the apogee of my hunt, rich bodies writhing next to (and on top of) one another - thank you TV. Despite the mediated gaze and the obvious ‘fauxness,’ there was something tantalising about being the voyeur. Standing in Belmacz, gazing down the gallery’s stairwell, the wholly staged placement of Dr. Louche (2020) ignited in me that very same phantasmic eroticism. Situated in a smoky room, the painting depicts a single ghostly figure reclining in a grandiose red armchair. Unlike the lonely figure of The Embracer and the incessant slurring of the group depicted in Paint Bores, this skinny figure appears wholly hallucinatory: constituted by the steam emanating from my loins and that magic powder I picked up in the bathroom. He is more than a mere Casanova or passive Hugh Grant. Stripped of everything but his ornate Manolo Blahnik loafers, and exuding a dark Yves Saint Laurent exoticism, the figure’s barely defined face nods us forward and we approach, mesmerised. Housley’s thick application of paint not only elongates the figure but gives his skin a haptic quality: oily, sweaty, that residue left after a gritty encounter ending on cloud nine.

Paul Housley, Dr.Louche, 2020, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 40cm

Such confidence, such conviction, in the visceral power of paint to conjure elusive dreamworlds runs throughout the show. Not only in the works I have mentioned here but in the small sketches Housley has been working on and sending to the gallery whilst the show has been closed – due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Quick A5 sketches of recognizable ‘Housley’ subject matter, owls, still lives, gangly figures, in pen, in pastel, and classy felt tip constitute this correspondence. Far from mere accompaniments, these sensitive works reveal Housley’s softer side. Frantic, yet precise; mushy, and detached, they read like love letters, not so much to the works on display but to the very act of painting itself; that is, the gritty process of corralling strange encounters locked-down in the artists’ twisted mind. 

Toby Upson

The Poets Elbow
Paul Housley
Belmacz, London.

until July 17 2020 
Gallery iopen Monday to Friday 11.00 - 17.00 (by appointment).