Darren Coffield came onto the art scene at just the right time to acquire a rock n’ roll lifestyle, if he’d so chosen. He has all the right credentials. Born in 1969, the son of a Smithfield porter, he studied at Goldsmith’s College, Camberwell School of Art and the Slade, where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Damien Hirst and Gary Hume, who would find celebrity among the YBAs. He was also friends with Gilbert and George. The influential critic David Sylvester - who wrote widely about Francis Bacon - remarked that Coffield was ‘Another of those magicians who (probably without knowing) know how to imbue pieces of matter with light’.
The wild child of Hoxton, Joshua Compston - who ran Factual Nonsense, a happening gallery in the 1990s in the, then, grungy Charlotte Road - was a contemporary of Coffield too. He and Coffield met on the steps of Camberwell College, with Compston dressed in his grandmother’s mink fur coat. Compston, a latter-day Romantic, was prone to issue statements such as: “My guns are directed at the banality of modern culture.” Coffield has since written a very good biography about him, covering that seminal period in the London Art Scene.
But Coffield tells me, when I visit his studio under the shadow of the millennial dome, that, rather than the glitz of the YBAs, it is the previous generation of painters that attracts him. Those who hung around the smoke-filled pubs of the 50s and 60s Soho such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Prunella Clough. At the age of 18, Coffield was to become a regular of Bacon’s haunt, The Colony Room Club, Soho, about which he has just written a book.
However, it is painting, not the trappings of fame that attract him. Ideas of identity, authenticity and authorship permeate his various bodies of work. Coffield has always been interested in the history and lineage of art, in working within ‘dead’ genres that are no longer popular in the contemporary art world. This led to Still Lives, a series based on the 18th century paintings in the Louvre by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). In his essay, Chardin and Rembrandt, written in 1895, the French writer Marcel Proust suggested that the ordinary becomes extraordinary when one takes the trouble to see what is special about it. In Dead Game (after Chardin) Coffield takes a dead pheasant lying on the table beside a snare and an over-ripe pear, in order to investigate how pictorial space can be broken down. Having seen Sam Taylor Wood’s time-lapse video of a bowl of fruit decomposing, he wanted to cause his own, unique disruptions to the picture surface. Coffield painted still-life compositions which he had cut up with a computer-guided laser by a company that makes luxury jigsaws for high end museums. He, then, extracted individual pieces, moving them around to create trompe-l’oeil effects and disconcerting visual tricks. Pliny’s famous account of Zexis, the 4th century BC painter, who was able to fool birds with his realistic depiction of grapes, comes to mind.
In Dead Game the foot of the pheasant has been turned 180 degrees so that it sticks out of the body at a disconcerting angle. Though the result is visually quite different, there are affinities with how cubism changes the viewer’s perception of an object. Rather than simply being a neat trick, this device forces the viewer to re-engage with the subject, instead of taking perception for granted. Among the Still Life series are six small paintings of a lemon, executed from different angles. All the information about the lemon is contained in these paintings but not necessarily in a way that makes cognitive sense. These little works have the finesse of old masters, yet the interventions ask philosophical and scientific questions about the nature of insight and recognition. How it is, in this age of digital mass communication and fake news, that we can trust our eyes to ‘tell us the truth’? How much of what we see is manipulated? Through this tension between the ‘real’ and the ‘abstract’, we end up asking if anything painted on a flat surface, however realistic, can ever be understood as more than a series of painted marks. As Merleau-Ponty asserted in his essay from Eye and Mind, 1961: “The entire modern history of painting, with its effort to detach itself from illusionism and to acquire its own dimensions, has a metaphysical significance.”
Since the advent of photography, the purpose of the painted portrait has been in doubt. The philosopher Raymond Williams suggested that the passport photograph, instituted in the First World War to police border crossings, was an image that was at once ‘factual’, whilst also being an approximation. Today, with the development of new facial technology systems, how we see ourselves and how others see us, is bound up with our sense of identity and liberty.
It was while painting a puzzle piece of Picasso that Coffield stuck the nose upside down and in in the wrong place. Instead of changing it, he realised that the shadow under the nose worked with the eyebrows, punctuating the space of the face to create a series of ironic contradictions. This serendipity led to his celebrated Paradox Paintings. These upside-down visual puns became a way of addressing the problem of the painted portrait in the 21st century. These reinterpretations of the physiognomy of a face were not a means of capturing a documentary likeness but, rather, the psychological equivalence of a subject, often more ‘real’ and insightful than a conventional portrait.
This ambiguity comes into play, again, in the new, hard-hitting series, Against the Tide. Over the last 20 years more than 60,000 migrant deaths have been recorded globally. Interested in how this humanitarian crisis has been represented in the media, Coffield began appropriating Old Master images from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. “I take classical images”, he said, “and combine them with the digital glitches you get from a bad signal, breaking up the composition with coloured stripes that evoke the banality of the British seaside: bright stripy deck chairs, windbreakers and sticks of rock.”
What he’s created are postmodern versions of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa. A snapshot of a contemporary human tragedy. Unlike the direct political and emotional appeal of, say, Turner’s The Slave Ship, the stripes veil the image. Not only do they imply barcodes and a tension between abstract formalism and figuration, but they can be read as a picket fence that corrals and imprisons these lost souls on their floating islands. The ships are both a means of escape and incarceration, for there are no points of entry or exit.
That many of them, such as Captain Cook’s Bark of Endeavour, were vehicles of colonial conquest, now returning to ‘colonise’ (as so many would insist in the current political climate) Europe and the first world, is an uncomfortable irony. These self-sufficient, candy-striped atolls function as the perfect metaphor for a detached and rudderless Britain, floating off alone into the wide blue yonder.
Along with images of ships taken from Greenwich Maritime Museum, Coffield has turned to old Lyons Tea Cards collected as a boy, that depict different warships and submarines. There’s an implied nostalgia at play here, based on the idea that Britain once ruled the waves. Yet when the tiny cards are blown up, the cheaply printed images ironically dissolve into a mass of pixilation.
In a further series of small paintings, a woman lies on a beach towel, a pair of blue flip-flops kicked off beside her. It is hard to tell whether she is sunbathing or dead, for she is rendered inert and anonymous by an invasive ‘wind-screen’ of vertical abstract stripes. In the tragic image of the three-year-old Syrian refugee of Kurdish ethnicity, Alan Kurdi, who made global news after drowning as his family tried to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the striped oblong seems to act as a shroud, veiling his individual identity so that he becomes a symbol of all drowned migrant children. When visiting the studio this poignant image was set beside one of an obese man in red swimming trunks - dissected by a section of abstract stripes - lying inert on a beach. The resemblance to Robert Maxwell, though apparently unintended, was uncanny. Here was a man, at the other end of the social and financial spectrum, who like little Alan, had met his fate by drowning.
To call Darren Coffield a political artist would be reductive. He is, certainly, concerned with the issues of the day but, above all, he is a painter. One who plunders art history, whilst having his finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary art practice. It is as an artist that he goes, daily, into his studio to find new ways of reviving the language of paint.
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. Her most recent, acclaimed, novel, Rainsongs, is published by Duckworth.