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The catalogue accompanying Chris Worfold's latest body of work, collectively titled All the Riches in the Night, included a series of quotes, gathered together by the artist under the title 'Vanitas'. Drawn from a myriad of sources, they offered a fabulous dialogue (as Pat Hoffie observed in her catalogue essay) between popular culture and the highbrow. Worfold cites St. Augustine alongside Nick Cave, Eric Fischl and David Cronenberg, in a conflation of histories and styles.
He quotes Joel Peter Witkin, 'I want to live in an age which sees similar beauty in a flower and in the severed limb of a human being'; Eric Fischl, 'An artist should be able to imagine heaven and hell vividly, both from the point of view of the devil and from the side of those who are tormented. You should be able to understand the pleasure of the badness'; and horror meister David Lynch who sedately observes, 'there are things that they wouldn 't understand as much as some others, but abstractions are a good thing and they exist all around us anyway'. Worfold avoids explaining his rational for including these collected observations, and while it is tempting to read the works in the light of these isolated statements, it is not entirely productive to do so. This new suite of paintings finds the artist in a dark realm indeed, so perhaps these quotes should be read as metaphorical illuminations, at best.
Worfold's work involves a contemporary blending of the sacred and the profane. On one level, his realist paintings evoke Dutch and Italian memento mori paintings: Dead Girl pictures a skull, seen from below, beautifully painted, and floated on a rich black background. Floating next to it is a shiny, blue satin bow, and beneath it, a pair of hairdresser's scissors, which we are to presume, belonged to the dead girl who is the subject of this current autopsy. Dead Girl has the quality of a macabre portrait, yet one is not given the sense that the subject is some anonymous Jane Doe. This, and the other works in this series, The Greatest Love Story, Marriage, Sympathy,
Hospitality and Vanity and Remembrance, are more about the abstraction of death, about the beauty within the horror. The blue bow is both a marker of 'her' sexuality and her individuality, and makes a neat reference to the vanitas genre. With these mementos Worfold trades on our emotional susceptibility in the face of personal effects, offering us clues that we might piece together. Paintings such as Vanity and Remembrance, with its pun on the skull and cross bones-the bones are replaced with two paint brushes-tempt us with the promise of a grand narrative, yet they fail to deliver. Here is a contemporary fable of death and sexuality, in which the main players are anonymous.
Worfold's work quite obviously relishes its realism, yet it is not the kind of realism that aims for suspension of disbelief. Instead, his work investigates realism for its chilling effect, opting for a surgical clarity exacerbated by the matte, lushness of the images. Despite the somewhat gruesome nature of the subject material, the work has an highly aesthetic quality. The paintings turn on the axis of repulsion and compulsion which is the very paradox inherent within the abject. Julia Kristeva, in her seminal essay, 'Powers of Horror', further develops the theme of the exquisite cadaver. For Kristeva, the corpse is somehow sublime, for the mere fact that it is somehow beyond representation, beyond comprehension, the evocation of the greatest horror. As St Augustine pondered 'What pleasure is to be found in looking at a mangled corpse, an experience that evokes repulsion? Yet wherever one is lying, people crowd around to be made sad and to turn pale-as if some report of the beauty of the sight had persuaded them to see it'. We are compelled by death, by the very opposition it demands to our own subjecthood, our own 'aliveness', and yet we deny it, it has no face beyond representation. In Worfold's new paintings, death is made somehow beautiful if not desirable.