Inside the White Cube is painter Michael Armitage’s first London solo show, with distinctive, vigorous works making an impact in Bermondsey, White Cube’s North Gallery. This work is well timed to open alongside the sprawling Theaster Gates’ exhibition that takes up the main halls.
Both artists look at African tradition and social issues, while grappling an Eastern sensibility, with their own Western life. Whilst Gates’ work deals more with the contrast between money, meaning and spirituality, Armitage creates a vibrant aesthetic, with paintings that have a lyrical movement to them, and mirror the bright, bold colours of the fauvists.
Having been raised in Kenya, there is an obvious mystique to these paintings that not only harks back to myth and legend, but also gives a sense of the artist’s own relationship with this country and the African continent in contrast with the West. There’s a primal, animalistic energy to the work, with dynamic brush strokes and a warm sensitivity. The colours and fluidity of the lines call to mind almost a drug crazed visual, with a sense of pure escapism and wild abandon.
One painting that depicts an embrace between two gorillas in a rainbow of colours is at once bright and gaudy, and also warm, human and sensitive. It channels a powerful lust that is one with the land. However, there’s an underlying violence to this as well, an uncaged, carnal energy. These bright surfaces have a duality that tricks the viewer into abandon, while masking and obscuring some of the deeper implications of the work. Paintings that on first look appear vivacious and lively, give way to a depth of violence and pain. Works reference global events such as the Somali attack on the North Coast during the previous World Cup, as well as more personal events, such as the traumatic plane crash Armitage experienced as a child and a bus crash he witnessed later in life. His work looks at Africa on a wider scale as well, looking at both urban and rural landscapes, animal life, modern advertising and everything in between. He builds a full picture of Africa, from personal to universal, documenting events from modern, to traditional and mythical.
That all of these complex events, emotions and ideas are wrapped up in a style of vibrant colour and energy seems a mirror for the continent itself. While Africa has been at the centre of devastating events over the last few centuries, both man made and natural, there is an overriding power and beauty to the land and the culture that should not be forgotten. These works act to both celebrate and commiserate this place for all that is it, in its natural and cultural splendour, and its global tragedy. This mix is on second thought slightly uncomfortable. Is this division a symbol of the way that the outside world views Africa? Splitting it into the painful and the vibrant with little awareness of the many grey areas and complexities in between? At times the pain of Africa hides the glory, and vice versa. This exhibition is a thoroughly exciting first look at an artist that will no doubt have more to add to the conversation as the years go by.
Michael Armitage - Inside the White Cube will be running until the 5th July at White Cube Bermondsey, 144 – 152 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ
Words by Emily Steer