By Sally O’Reilly
Fairgrounds with ghost trains, packets of monster munch, the moon and a television screen filled with static might sound like the beginnings of a roll call of the vital components of a British childhood. Archie Franks presents these familiar objects not as biographical indulgences, however, but as propositions of enthusiasms perhaps, or as provocations of the collective memory. I write ‘perhaps’ because the artist is not sure himself how the final paintings operate. Luscious canvases complicate the blunter visuals that high-key leisure, with its bright lights and artificial flavourings, deliver. The encrustation of paint perverts slick mass-cultural banality and suggests a historical specificity, a subjective response. The paintings seem friendly but barbed or reticent.
The starting point for a landscape painting is Fragonard’s The Small Park, which hangs in the Wallace Collection. The 18th-century painter made it just after leaving Rome, and Franks, having also just left a residency in Rome, was struck by the interference patterns that ripple through history when a contemporary artist quotes a Rococo artist, when a current voices rearticulates the concerns of the past. The Rococo was a florid and playful counterpoint to the grandeur of the Baroque, and yet now both terms are used to signal excess, ornamentation and decadence. Franks’s choice of subject matter, and the manner in which it is described, both seem to demand the invention of an up-to-date but related term.
While the contradiction between historical decadence and cheap corn snacks is pretty immediate, other, slower meanings emanate from the paintings. The Baroque, Franks notes, fully acknowledges its own illusionism, and draws analogies with the fictional spaces of the psyche. It is this self-awareness that Franks instils in the work, and which we sense, in several registers. A painting at once interrogates picture making and is a picture. A practice at once articulates the complexities and nuances of the world at large, and investigates the histories of its own mediums and genres. But as ever, there are balances to be struck. How far can an historical trope be stretched before it becomes unrecognisable, and how weird can the world become before it is unpaintable?