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In-Store Security, Johnathan Wateridge, 2009

Jonathan Wateridge: Another Place

The British painter invites you to step inside a fabricated cinematic vision of disaster and experience an unsettling reality

Jonathan Wateridge paints what he describes as "elaborate fictions with visible seams", building huge movie-like sets and employing his friends to pose as characters in the scenes he then commits to canvas. By approaching his craft in this way, the artist creates an arena in which it is possible to play disorientating tricks upon the perceptive reasoning of the viewer. This has perhaps never been more true than it is in Another Place, which is currently exhibiting at Tramshed in Shoreditch. The exhibition consists of seven large-scale works depicting various scenes from the set of an entirely fictional movie loosely inspired by the tale of the architect William Mulholland, who built a reservoir that famously collapsed and killed hundreds of Californians (all of the works allude to an unidentified disaster in a tricksy, undefined vision of what may or may not be Los Angeles). If this creative method was approached via the medium of photography it would have a considerable degree of impact – approached via the medium of oil painting it takes the viewer to an even more curious place.

Dazed Digital: Cinema has a fetishistic relationship with fictional cataclysm. Is that something you are exploring here?
Jonathan Wateridge: Definitely. Disaster is death metered out in a perfect storm that reduces us to the most insignificant level we can possibly imagine: what makes us fascinated by the whole notion of apocalypse is that it is completely beyond  our control. All these paintings are placed within the context of a fictionalised west coast American city that is a very thinly-veiled version of Los Angeles. What interests me most about Los Angeles is that it is literally at the edge or the end of the western world: it's an interesting and very resonant place in that it is so fictionalised by its own cinematic history, but also by what it represents in terms of America as a whole. There is a book I was reading when researching the project called The Ecology Of Fear in which the author postulated that there is this fascinating analogy between the literary destruction of Los Angeles and the threat to the whole idea of American exceptionalism. That’s something I found quite interesting

DD: These are set-ups that depict your friends posing as actors in a fictional movie, but the job of any actor is to find the truth of any given situation. In a strange way is there a truth about human experience being explored?
Jonathan Wateridge: I guess becasue it’s all so much about fabrication and fiction the idea of truth has to be in there somewhere, but to me the truth is this very fragile inscecure thing, and the one thing I would never do in a painting is to set up or establish any kind of truth. The sense that these figures are in 'someone else's skin' plays up the notion that these identities are ultimately fluid and that the paintings as a whole are more of an exploration of types and systems. In a sense, I am probably wanting to ask questions and almost set up lies, which might in fact wind up telling us about something that has some degree of truth in it. There are, of course, some abslolute truths, such as you are born and you die, but as soon as you are interpreting truth through language it becomes contingent and subjective.

DD: What inspired you to create the haunting cabal of beautiful mannequins in the painting In-Store Security?
Jonathan Wateridge: On a simple level, I guess there’s all those films like Omega Man, where Charlton Heston is the last surviving guy and he’s walking through a department store. I remember seeing that film as a kid and I always loved the uncanniness of him intermingling with the mannequins. There is so much in the work about that uncanny state of being alive or dead and how we read whether something is alive or not in painterly terms, and I thought that was something I could very much explore by having the mannequins in there. I wanted to have the them look as oddly lifelike as I possibly could.

DD: There also seems to be something being said about class in these works...
Jonathan Wateridge: Absolutely. The security guard, for instance, is within this environment that is all about money: he guards it and controls it but he has no access to it. I very much saw the three paintings on the right wall of the space as being about affluence, power and the infrastructure of a city, and those on the left as being much more about everyday working-class concerns: on one side of the gallery are scenes from up in the hills, and on the other are those from down in the valley.

DD: In setting up these situations and then painting them in the way that you do, what are you aiming to achieve?
Jonathan Wateridge: I'm interested in creating fabricated worlds in which I hope to explore a diverse range of ideas, but that at a fundamental level always ask questions about the truth value of any given image. If I were to set everything up in the studio and just take a photograph of it you would understand it very quickly, because we all still consider a photograph to depict something ‘true’. The irony for me is that as soon as the set-up is cohered into painting you almost believe it even more. Orson Welles once said that with a colour movie you just believe it becasue it’s colour, whereas with a black and white movie you are forced to read it becasue it’s symbolic. Painting and photography have a similar relationship. With painting you are forced to interpret it becasue you know it has been entirely made. There are, however, truthful elements in the fact that the basis of these works is all a set-up, and in being clear about that I am being very real and true. I enjoy exploiting the different angles by which you can approach painting, and the Brechtian notion that within a theatrical context any 'reality' lies in the performing of the text and not its subject. One of the central facets of these paintings is an exploration of their status as a construct.

Another Place exhibits at Tramshed until July 3