Tthe pipe is stirring at Tate Modern! They spend 21 years telling you that figurative painting is dead: 21 years of film screenings, dancing and guys screaming on screens. Then they give a retrospective to an old school figurative painter and tell us what modern looks like now.
Lubaina Himid’s exhibition in the museum’s Blavatnik building, where time-based and performance-based art usually reign supreme, is packed with the kind of cheerful postmodernist pop you usually see at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. The vibe that this museum projects is heavy and apocalyptic, in keeping with its intimidating industrial scale. But this artist is whimsical. She begins her retrospective with a set of paintings on DIY. Safety instructions in a manual are written alongside pictures of cogs, nails and tools. Over the nearby speakers, in one of the many works of sound art Himid created with Magda Stawarska-Beavan, these instructions are repeated. It’s like a very, very sweet version of Jasper Johns. And it turns out this whole spectacle is about as dangerous as a painting of a hammer. He does not escape from art to life.
The sound work, so early, seems destined to reassure us that Himid fits perfectly into the Tate Modern. But she’s no more modern than David Hockney – although he’s very modern in his own way. The comparison is not random. When Himid started her artistic life in the 1980s, it seems that she was a huge Hockney fan. His influence is visible in early paintings such as Ankledeep (1991), with his two pairs of bare feet resting on a splash of blue and white brushstrokes straight out of one of his images from the early 1960s.
Hockney himself appears, with the dyed blonde hair he still sported in the 1980s, sitting with a man on his lap in the Himid 1984-6 installation A Fashionable Wedding. When this Hogarth-inspired painting was featured in the 2017 Turner Prize (which she won) in Hull, it seemed angry and satirical. Here, in the midst of all her paintings, she is tamed.
It turns out to be an expression of Himid’s fascination with narrative painting. Her 2016 cycle, Le Rodeur, which takes its name from a French slave ship, uses Hogarth’s idea of ”progress”, a visual story told through several images. Le Rodeur: La Cabane is particularly Hogarthian, taking place on a ship, where a musician in 18th century costume plays the fife and the drum while a waiter brings a jelly.
The Rodeur crew threw 36 chained West Africans overboard in 1819. Himid’s paintings do not rage at this incident. Instead, it’s a dull ache in the background, a fact his characters could elude or mull over in silence. If it was a room, it would be full of pauses.
“What is a monument? Himid asks in a text painted alongside a collection of jars, based on jelly molds, painted with portraits, emblems and historical styles. It’s a good question. His art deals with memory in a strangely sinuous way. Historical pain haunts him, but the calm numbers and upbeat colors keep their cool.
After a while you want a blast. I wanted a video yelling at me, an artist slapping my face. It is all too easy and too polite. The gap between the political and historical themes of Himid’s art and its elegance could be very effective. Instead, the meaning is reduced to a thin thread of allegory. OKAY. I understand that the sea in all the scenes of the Rodeur is sinister, the calm of the characters against nature, when you know that it is slavery. Still, you won’t see it in the actual images.
There are also paintings of utopian buildings, carpets and almost abstract patterns. Himid loves his colors. A sound work keeps repeating the word “blue” in different languages, in a room filled with constructivist arrangements of musical instruments, newspapers (this one) and book covers, all dotted with blue lacing.
As a colourist she sparkles, but as a painter of characters and places she is too vague. We see formally composed and elegantly dressed groups meeting in bars or lounges, but every detail is like a quote from a quote.
If Tate Modern thinks painting is now modern, they must be wondering why some paintings are only decorative, while others are deep. There is nothing here to show why this particularly skilled and idiosyncratic, but not particularly upsetting, painter belongs to Tate Modern when others of his generation are to be thankful for a less glamorous Tate Britain show. I have always wondered what this museum means by “modern”. Turns out that’s all the rage, and if the wind is blowing towards painting, let’s not say the Tate Modern isn’t blowing either.