Masterpiece Art, Dubai, are delighted to present an exhibition of contemporary painting exploring key historical figures within the Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - with contextual, poetic accompaniments written by Steven O'Brien, Editor of The London Magazine and author of Britannic Myths (2017). The Abrahamic Family: JOE MACHINE, will be the artist's debut in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.
The Abrahamic Family: JOE MACHINE
There was a time when the art of painting - the visual image made by hand - was the dominant factor in visual communication, which in turn enjoyed a universal role in the conversation between cultures, transcending the barriers imposed by differing languages. This situation has now to some extent been changed by the increasing roles of still photography and film.
In today’s society, we have access to a vast mass of mechanically produced images. Many of these contain a strong element of what we recognise as artistic intervention – that is they are subjective comments on what has been seen and then recorded, but they are not the products of independent imagination. Subjectivity, however, intrudes even when today’s painters are determined to exclude it, as for example when they are trying to produce a portrait, or the realist image of a still life or a landscape.
One result of this situation has been the rise in Western art, from the early 20th century onwards, of purely abstract art – of images that make no apparent reference to what has been seen, but which exist as independent visual inventions. Another more recent consequence in much contemporary figurative painting has been an obsessive fascination with self-portraiture. It is as if the only kind of image over which painters now feel they have unchallenged control is the image of the self.
This new series of paintings by British artist Joe Machine deliberately challenges these assumptions. They are examples of what used to be called ‘history painting’, which was for a long time revered as in the West, the highest, most ambitious form of artistic expression. They represent imagined personages and scenes, set in remote periods of the past. Most of them refer to the Christian tradition, but there are, in addition, references both to the traditions of Judaism, and to those of Islam.
Many of the personages represented will be obscure even to a very well-informed Christian audience. Who, for example, was St Dunstan (said to have been born around the year 909 Christian era), who foiled the Devil, frustrating the Evil One’s plans on numerous occasion? And who immediately, when his name is mentioned, recalls the story of Aristobules, of Jewish Cypriot origin, first Bishop of Roman Britain, brother to the Apostle Barnabas? Aristobules is revered as a saint in the Orthodox Church, and Cypriot folklore says that he was eventually eaten by cannibals.
There are references to better known stories as well. One painting represents an encounter between the English king and crusader Richard the Lionheart and his legendary Islamic opponent Saladin, two chivalrous captains of armies, meeting as equals.
The style and format chosen for these works is consistent. The images owe their characteristics to a number of related sources. First of all, and most obviously, to medieval book illustrations. But also, to both Persian and Mughal miniature painting. All these modes are particularly well suited to visual narrative, they are also well adapted to delivering crisply iconic versions of the subjects and personages portrayed. There is no attempt at realistic portrayal. The actors in these scenes are iconic entities.
If one looks, for example, at two scenes with – in the historical sense – quite widely divorced subject-matter, one notes the consistency of approach. One image portrays the Caliph of Cordoba, the Islamic ruler of what, in medieval times, was quite a large share of the territory we now call Spain. The other shows an encounter between King Arthur, legendary defender of Britain against the invading Saxons, hero of the largely fanciful narratives about King Arthur and the Round Table, and the enchanter Merlin. The images are designed to offer the spectator who looks at them the essence of the personages depicted.
One of the ways in which some contemporary art has, in very recent developments, seemed to return to aspects of the past has been through a renewal of interest in narrative. In one way, this is not, if one thinks about it, entirely unexpected. Many aspects of contemporary culture are linked to an interest in storytelling. These popular narratives range from serials on television to comic strips in newspapers. Pop Art, at first glance very different from what Joe Machine offers here, often has a strong narrative thrust. The images offered in this exhibition do not string out the stories they offer sequentially, as strip-cartoons do. Instead of that, they seek to encapsulate the whole story within one location. The whole story exists within a frame, sometimes encapsulated in a single human figure - Nimue of the Pale Countenance, for example.
In this sense, Joe Machine can be thought of, not as an archaising artist, but as one who is very much of our own time. Written by Edward Lucie-Smith (2021)
Edward Lucie-Smith: British critic well known for numerous books about modern and contemporary art. Some of these are now regarded as standard texts, and have been through numerous revised editions and been frequently translated. He is widely travelled, including visits to China, Russia, the Gulf States, Iran, India and most of the nations of Latin America.