February 23, 2019

Auerbach at @TateBritain – taming the wild

Auerbach treats oil paint as though it’s ice cream. He layers it onto the canvas with the would-you-like-a-flake-with-that abandon of an ice-cream van employee. Not the owner who’s thinking of the profit line but an assistant giving their friend a sample of every flavour in the freezer.

It’s a decadent and wasteful technique, but like a lot of decadent and wasteful things the thick impasto has a visceral attraction. Unfortunately sometimes the mix turns to mud, not just in colour but texture, whole canvases triggering long-repressed memories of enforced cross-country runs when the weather was too bad to get beaten up on the rugby field.

Later his colours brighten, his paint thins, but the angry, repetitive gestures remain, most obviously in the overworked, angular charcoal drawings. Here new paper has been grafted in like scar tissue to cover the damage and rips in the original piece.

Auerbach wouldn’t ever be a go-to-artist for Crimewatch. He ignores precision and accuracy in favour of atmosphere and visuality, allowing the viewer to interpret paintings as they wish. An attractive painting of Venice – all prows of gondolas and jagged palazzi actually turns out to be Mornington Crescent in North London. He’s done more to popularise that street than anyone but the I’m sorry I haven’t a clue boys. Even the most abstract images are labelled with place names. Some colours and strokes form visually unpleasant images: prime example being Mornington Crescent  Early Morning and some actively offend the eye – Albert Street, 2009 is a mess of unappealing colours, slashed brush strokes and paint squeezed directly from tube.

Exhibitions of this size often have a short video of the artist at work. These can be tedious affairs, usually they involve the viewer sitting on an uncomfortable bench, often they are unnecessary. Here it would actually have been interesting to see a video of Auerbach’s unusual techniques. Does he use a Mr Whippee machine? How close are his methods to stirring porridge? We don’t get the answers we need.  He’s an artist who found an unusual niche: use so much oil paint few can afford to copy you.

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