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EXHIBITION ONLINE Artless anti-life

ANGUS REID is unimpressed by the reactionary undertow in an exhibition of melancholic Perthshire landscapes and photographs

Philip Braham: Closer to Home
The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

 
PHILIP BRAHAM’S new exhibition is prompted, he says, by reflections on suicide.

In it, solitary trees stand out against poisonous skies, while stony paths wander into the centre of the composition and go nowhere.

The whole enterprise recalls the gloomy romanticism of the 19th-century German painter Caspar David Friedrich, whom Braham cites as a major influence.

Friedrich’s graveyards, ruined abbeys and visions of an icy wasteland fitted the bill when the Nazis required a new template for art to fill the galleries and to give the individual under totalitarianism the illusion that they had a soul.

Braham situates himself deliberately within such a toxic tradition in a concerted attempt to muscle out dissent and individuality.

It would be naive to mistake his flat and lifeless compositions for reality. These landscapes are not innocent. Rather, with their obsessive detail of twigs and stubble silhouetted against operatic skies, they reek of plagiarism and privilege, of guilt and a calculated and cynical “spiritual effect.”

The interesting thing is that he makes this so obvious. His working method is painfully evident — you could mock up a Braham in five minutes on Photoshop.

He displays the major painting of the show, Black Crow by a Stony Path, alongside the digital photograph from which it is derived, Ploughed Field, South Farr.

Braham’s difficulty is how to elevate this digital photo-fit from banal mediocrity to art that makes a “statement about the human condition,” as he puts it, and this is what the suicide motif is for.

Although the facts of Van Gogh’s death are contested, the combination of wheat field, crow and suicide make for the cultural cliche that serves Braham’s aspirations.

But what kind of suicide is he talking about? Sociologist Emile Durkheim defined four types common in west European societies, among them “egoistic suicide,” resulting from excessive individuation, most common among unmarried men not bound into social groups.

If suicide is Braham’s genuine subject, he must be referring to one of this type.

But there is a studied lack of individuality in images that are intended to indicate an excessively individuated cause of death.

They disclose nothing of the individual whatsoever and fail to enlighten.

This failure is a perverse success. It enacts a double suicide, both the undisclosed “egoistic” suicide of the supposed subject and the “altruistic” suicide of his own artistic practice.

Inviting us to contemplate the total inadequacy of this tradition of landscape, and its hollow death-fixated obsession, Braham deploys the motif of the path that leads nowhere and his intention to enact a public display of art suicide becomes explicit.

The painting Endless Path gets only two-thirds rendered before it gives up completely and surrenders to blankness.

Braham, the Scottish-born son of Polish immigrants, is inviting us to witness the suicide of fascist aesthetics in his adopted culture.

At least, let’s hope so.

Online until January 30, scottish-gallery.co.uk/exhibitions.

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