There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
After showing with the gallery various times in both small and large group shows since its inception in 2012, Robert Fry returns with his first proper solo at the gallery, simply entitled, Lost Men_ after his series of paintings with the same title. Fry’s work, which has always housed an undeniable level of psychological charge, is often coded in enigma, complexity, and even an obsessive use of purple that comes across almost as a sort of artistic armor: enticing the viewer while holding them always at bay.
Purple is often associated with power, luxury, and extravagance, from Tyrian Purple as Cleopatra’s favourite colour; to depictions of Louis XIV the ‘Sun King’ as godlike – adorned in purple robes; to the almost religious reverence bestowed on Rothko’s purple colour fields in the Rothko Chapel; or the unhinged, omniscient-like sense of mystery and magic in the chaotic and automatic-writing style works of Cy Twombly. It is at times a comforting colour, but (more often than not,) with its wild variations into realms of pink and magenta as used here by Fry, it has the power to seem somehow unsettling, psychologically charged, even disquieting in its almost lurid appeal.
But Fry is also concerned with the corporeal and the psychological depths of our psyche: the mind is a complex vessel; it is laboriously studied and houses fathomlessly unknown intricacies and recesses. The human mind is capable of such force and power, yet remains a fragile organ, rich with many incalculable dimensions.
Further, Fry’s work, which has always housed an undeniable level of psychological charge, is often coded in enigma, complexity, and such an obsessive use of purple that it can be conceived as a sort of artistic armor: enticing the viewer while holding them always at bay. In fact, his foray’s into what can be considered ‘pink’ confounds the societal norms of masculinity: in fact, when it was built in 1695, the German Armory (or _Zeughaus_) was stuccoed pink – a colour which then stood for masculinity and power. So to do these works toy with what seems to be a complex idea of masculinity: power, submission, weakness, strength are all dealt with within these paintings. What compels the artist – any artist really, to perform in such a determined, obsessive state?
While the artist has always been reluctant to divulge too much of his work’s intentions, the appearance of the works alone, with silhouetted figures, applied surfaces, repetitive words, an obsessive but abstracted attention to detail, have always maintained an element of autobiography that surely becomes evident to any viewer upon even the most cursory viewing. These are paintings about psychological states: a moving and powerful portrait of ‘Man’ – and likely the artist himself – but viewed with a veil, through subterfuge, as though a poem laden with complexity, or a portrait viewed through a fogged mirror.
The composition of the paintings often depicts two standing figures presenting clashing, conflicting personalities, as two representatives of the same individual. Minds that are present and absent, beautiful and terrible. For Fry, the intention behind using life-size figures is to facilitate the viewer in challenging their preconceived image of the male form and identity. The works suggest a sort of religious reverence we often reserve for artists like, say, Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock – even the visceral, sheer brutalist physicality of an artist Hermann Nitsch is not an inept comparison. But Fry situates himself with the same sort of conceptual framework often saved for the abstract expressionists – or even literary figures of the human condition like Nietzsche, Camus, Dostoyevsky, by tapping into our psychological reservoirs: these are haunting, emotive, expressive works. These ‘lost men’ are any man, everyman. Lost men that dissolve in and out of our reading, just as our very own identities can feel obfuscated at times.
So Fry has presented us with a series of Lost Men for us to let our thoughts wander through like a sea of emotion, color, and poetry. We are invited, as viewers, to look both closely and abstractly, and see what sort of revelations we may make about the works, about Fry, and most importantly, about ourselves.
*In the UK alone, it is estimated that 1 in every 8 men struggles with mental illness. A portion of this show’s proceeds will go a mental health charity of the artists choosing.
Robert Fry’s works, whether on canvas or paper, typically revolve around the act of stripping the human body down to its barest – often most psychologically charged – elements. He creates flattened forms and silhouettes which, when coupled with his trademark dark and brooding colour palette of purple, magenta, maroon, and oxblood, results in figures that ebb and flow from their surroundings. The works are often typified by subject matter that is culled from Classical references and motifs (including Renaissance archways and curving porticoes), skeletal and muscular diagrams (from the Vesalius Man to Arnold Schwarzenegger), or his own personal memory bank (imagined images of himself and his father, vistas from his West London home and studio), and – most recently – found magazine and pornographic material which has made its way, in collage-form, into the surface of the paintings, along with obsessively repeated text that creates a sort of onomatopoeia-like border around the scene itself. Fry is – at a base level – a figurative painter, but the work is so obscurely and poetically charged that to categorize in any one manner seems shortsighted: they are more like psychological landscapes, where figures are so obscured that we, as viewers, are forced to examine them in abstract means. The works perhaps recall Francis Bacon, where grotesque, writhing male figures seem trapped within an architectural space. His desire to withhold any easy answer from the viewer creates an unnerving tension between reality and fantasy, depiction and imagination. Fry believes that by always presenting the figure nude, he is permitted to explore the human condition in the most accessible manner, presenting the human body as a conduit of expression and meaning, devoid of any preconceptions that may otherwise arise through the depiction of their face, clothing, or background. Figures are often shown in groups, with one or more individuals representing either an ‘other’ or an alternative state of mind or being, and often laid one atop the other, stripped of identity and presented for the viewer in a totally metaphorical, painterly context. Fantastical, haunting, and poetic, Fry’s work is quite unlike any other contemporary working painter.
ROBERT FRY (b. 1980 London), graduated with a BA Hons Fine Art from Oxford Brooks University in 2002. Solo exhibitions include: Robert Fry and Casey McKee: ‘Unpacking Ego’, Space K, South Korea (2018); ‘Robert Fry and Tina Schwarz’, Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin (2017); ‘Partners’, Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin (2015) and VOLTA NY (2015). Group exhibitions include: ‘Works on Paper’, BEERS London, London (2018), ‘The Therapist Office’, 1969 Gallery, New York, USA (2018); ‘Berlin Calling’, Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin (2018); ’75 Works on Paper’, BEERS London (2017); ‘The Nude in the XX and XXI Century’, Sotheby’s SI2, London, England (2015) and ‘100 Painters of Tomorrow’, One Art Space, New York (2014). Fry will be having a solo exhibition with BEERS London in the fall of 2019.