On ViewSlag Gallery
July 2 – August 29, 2020
There is something comforting yet dreadful about the idea of an enfilade in architecture. The painter Tim Kent has rhapsodically incorporated both the aesthetic highs and the sociological lows of this hierarchical space in his cycle of six oil on linen paintings, on view at Slag Gallery through August 29th. On the bright side, the enfilade concept provides a deeply satisfying sense of order and harmony in a space. It prioritizes the eye of the viewer as a faux omphalos, which is at least psychologically empowering. Kent utilizes this visceral response by feeding our eye with feats of perspective. In Fading Room (2019) the painter engages with a recurring theme in his work, uncomfortably balancing human presence with the architecture. The eye flickers between the seemingly infinite succession of doorways on the right and the glittering gowned woman reclining to the left. Domestic geometry organizes the drama of Kent’s works; the spaces are simple, but much of the action appears to take place offstage. The enigma lies in rooms we can’t see, which often (but not always) are spaces to which the foreground figures attempt to gain access. In these simple open spaces, the painter has room to play with the details, adding in ornate doorways, windows, framed paintings, and sculptures—not to mention his shade-like silhouetted characters. The problem with enfilades emerges from this exact same tension between stability and drama. We know where we stand, but with each succeeding room, there is another level of access and intimacy we cannot reach. An enfilade is the architectural embodiment of the class system. Theoretically, the enfilade can be interpreted with regard to sophisticated levels of organization and knowledge, but the fact remains that the peons inhabit the outermost room, the VIP’s the innermost. This too is used by Kent to build a fleeting Restoration Comedy of manners and social circumstances; he works mostly in 17th and 18th century interiors, so this genre seems the most applicable. Because of the characters Kent brings in, whether a soup-kitchen-line or protest, in Appeal (2020), or a conspiratorial board meeting in Defilade (2020), or just rubble-strewn, dilapidated halls, as in Ambush (2020), it’s hard to tell whether we are silent observers in a scene from Brideshead Revisited (1945) or participants in the Storming of the Tuileries.
It’s funny because part of the attraction to Kent’s painting is the age-old practice of painting grand houses, a very contradictory practice in art: portraits of great houses were painted by artists as decorative but reliable records for their owners, later becoming a kind of voyeuristic window into the lives of the rich and famous. Kent’s precise studies of well-known stately mansions like Holkham Hall in Norfolk in Appeal or the halls of the Louvre in Ambush are consciously part of this tradition of cataloging wealth and prestige exhibitionism.
As a realistic painter, he clearly enjoys making the paintings. Akin to the artisans who produced renderings of architecture in centuries past, sketching and measuring their subjects, Kent utilizes architectural rendering software to sketch a virtual model of the spaces he paints. The sentimental specificity peters out at that point though, and the narrative seeps in. Much like the tradition of paper theaters that thrived in England in the 19th century—in which the public would build miniature theaters from kits and recreate performances—Kent creates hybrid palaces in a digital space and then drops in assemblages of human forms, pulled from photographs he finds. The results are jarring, disrupting the easy routine of manners that one expects in a domestic culture ruled by enfilades.
In Appeal (2020), an incongruous line of darkly garbed people clasping banners, that flutter down from the ceiling informally line up in a salon of Holkham Hall. Like a scene constructed by a playwright or director, Kent creates a sense of foment and tension by placing this rag-tag group in luxurious surroundings. While the artist is punning on the title of his exhibition, and both the rooms and the participants are in line, it is hard to tell whether the humans come in peace, or are resisting the hierarchies of the architecture. Strangely reminiscent of The Matrix, the composition of the scene with its solid architecture but ghostly actors is a vision unique to Kent. With the ample latitude that comes with dexterity in the craft of painting, Kent is at home utilizing a wide spectrum of styles—Realism, Impressionism, and Futurism—which he clearly enjoys. But he is neither arch nor pastiche and he pulls a bit of the nostalgia from Richter’s blurry images and drops in the foreboding and intricate architectural fantasies of Piranesi. Oddly, the most effective painting in the show is the most sentimental: Agent (2020) is set in a paneled sitting room, furnished with sumptuous yet probably uncomfortable loveseats and armchairs in cold and non-intimate arrangements, positioned around a behemoth of an ornate stone fireplace. Like the portals in an enfilade layout, a series of ghostly maids kneel on the floor in a shallow curve following the line of doorways. The energy and posture of the resolute maids mirrors the strength and intention of Caillebotte’s bare-chested and burly workmen in The Floorscrapers (1875), who also work in a room embellished with architecture cueing wealth above their station. We are left to wonder why these ethereal women still wash the floor in Kent’s painting; is this a comment on a class divide that remains, and is ever widening, or is it a romance playing out in the painter’s head?