The corridor of a vaulted gallery is strewn with empty picture frames heaped on the floor and haphazardly propped against the walls, as if an army has just marched through and torn each canvas from its stretcher bars in a mass evacuation, leaving the frames to gather dust. In a grand ballroom, uniformed men and women line up in formation, but their bodies are evaporating before our eyes. Shadowy, half-transparent suited men around a conference table turn sharply toward us, confronting our interruption, but they have no faces, no eyes to return our gaze. In a sumptuously appointed sitting room, housemaids take their rags to the floor and begin to wipe clean the paint around them, as if to erase the evidence of their surroundings and their own existence in it.
With their stately Neoclassical proportions, elegant furniture, and damask-covered walls, the spaces represented in Tim Kent’s new paintings are reminiscent of the historic interiors that captured his interest as an art student at West Dean College in East Sussex nearly twenty years ago. Plying his mischief and charm, the young artist secured invitations into some of England’s most magnificent stately homes, engineering for himself the opportunity to study and paint the dazzling architectural remnants of a disappearing ruling class. Kent revisits the rarified world of those spaces in these new works, but through the long lens of memory and experience, bringing a darker, dystopian vision to their noble geometry.
The ballrooms and salons in these new pictures are full of spatial anomalies, strange forces, and silent, spectral figures that flicker in and out of focus like holographs. The paintings give only intimations of the furtive activities within—just enough to spark speculations of conspiracies, shadow politics, and covert systems of power. They play into our unconscious associations and our appetites for theories, but refuse to affirm them.
Kent is an artist deeply cognizant of the relationship between art and power. From representations of gods and kings to the invention of spatial ordering systems like the perspective grid, the history of painting has its own relationship to power. Linear perspective exists to persuade the beholder with the power of illusion, simulating an extension of our three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane. Kent, a masterful architect of pictorial space, employs the mechanisms of traditional perspective and knowingly interferes with them, destabilizing the authority of the grid with suggestions of the metaphysical, the irrational, and the uncanny.
The new paintings range from small to epic, more than eight feet across. Their imagery derives from a vast range of sources, including his personal library of architectural photography, the archives of the Library of Congress, and his expansive knowledge of art history. Among other spirits, Kent’s rooms are haunted by the tenebrous grandeur of Diego Velazquez, the whisper-quiet chambers of Vilhelm Hammershøi, the brutal distortions of Francis Bacon, the courtly seductions of Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher, the swirling society portraits of Giovanni Boldini, and the labyrinthian inventions of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Kent is his own designer, however, borrowing, recombining, and manipulating his source material into unmistakably contemporary configurations that mingle the elegance of Georgian architecture with the cold austerity of Brutalism.
The compositions begin with intricate underdrawings comprising dozens, if not hundreds, of drawn lines mapped into complex perspectival projections. The visitor to Kent’s studio encounters an elaborate apparatus of straight-edge rulers with counterweights that the artist can move around like the hands of a clock to draw his converging orthogonal lines. The system was inspired by the technical methods of Johannes Vermeer. Using this and other approaches, Kent’s found imagery becomes the subject of wild exaggerations of scale resulting from the construction of multiple horizons and vanishing points. And yet, for all their illusionistic sleight of hand, his compositions are also flights of pure geometric fancy.
Ambush, for example, one of the most geometrically complex compositions, is an explosion of straight lines, angles, and curves. The interior space of the painting divides essentially into two halves: a vaulted gallery on the left that recedes dramatically into the distance (based on a photograph of the Louvre following the evacuation of its collection during World War II), and a landing with a massive curving staircase on the right that corkscrews sharply into the upper foreground. Echoing shapes proliferate within the larger framework: the curve of the gallery’s vaulted ceiling mirrors the shape of the sculpture niche on the right; the short, parallel lines of the stairs mimic those of the corridor’s inlaid floorboards, and so on. The two halves are disjointed however, the transition between them an awkward, illogical juncture. Passages of sharply delineated architecture collapse into irreconcilable spatial situations and incidents of pure painterly presence, brushed, knifed, spattered, and spackled. The marble sculpture in the right foreground, a quotation of the famous Dying Gaul of antiquity, disintegrates before our eyes, fracturing into geometric planes and dissolving into blurry sweeps. The interplay reveals Kent’s ongoing infatuation with the sorcery of pictorial realism—and his Prospero-like readiness to break his staff apart.
On top of a composition’s linear armature, paint is applied in grayscale, establishing the tonal value system. Kent tends to juxtapositions of strongly contrasting light levels, placing flooding brightness next to pitch-dark shadows, modulating these extremes with mid-tones in a range of ashen hues. It is this layer of underpainting that gives his paintings their volumetric realism and extraordinary inner light.
Rather than follow Vermeer’s lead in subsuming his perspectival pentimenti beneath the veneer of painted surfaces, Kent leaves his framework half-exposed. The visibly projecting gridlines dislodge the depicted interiors from their historical and stylistic contexts. Branching forth from walls and floors, the grid points to the future as well as the past, resembling the computer-generated matrix of a virtual reality simulation as much as a Renaissance perspective study.
In the last stage of his process, the artist glazes color onto the grisaille under-layer. He limits the number of pigments, applying them in broad warm and cool zones to enhance areas of depth and luminosity. Color, accordingly, reads not as inherent to the painting’s contents, but more like a patina, lending the images a further feeling of temporal and emotional distance.
Kent has called the exhibition Enfilade—an architectural feature that runs through many of these paintings like a leitmotif. Deriving from the French enfiler, meaning to thread or to string things in a straight line, an enfilade is a suite of connected rooms situated along an axis of aligned doorways. Commonly encountered in baroque palaces, large apartments, and art museums, an enfilade is a device with a strong spatial and psychological charge, intended to impress and constrain. When all the doors are open, the viewer is privy to an uninterrupted vista. But from other positions within a room, we are prevented from seeing the connecting spaces—a game of revealing and withholding Kent gleefully exploits. In Fading Room, as in many of the paintings, he grants us a direct view down a vista that seems to extend indefinitely. The alternating, raking passages of light and shadows down the passage signal the suite of interconnected rooms—rooms, we might imagine, containing the contents of further paintings full of hidden activities we cannot access. The imagination is stimulated by what it cannot account for. How do we account for the ghostly man in the doorway, so bizarrely small in scale compared to the woman on the settee in the cascading dress? The woman’s own figure appears caught in the grid like a fly in a spider’s web, slowly decomposing into the surrounding space.
Paintings depicting rows of figures also evoke the secondary, more violent definition of an enfilade. In military terminology, an enfilade is a battle line of troops, or the firing pattern directed at them. The uniformed figures in Appeal line up in formation, nameless, faceless masses, the cogs of some controlling power. Do these evaporating figures signal the needful disappearance of an old guard? Or does the picture sound a warning about the disappearing value of individual identity in a digital world?
Odds Are prompts similar questions of surveillance and control as we witness an architect dropping small people into a model city like lab rats into a maze. The full-scale figure is unusual in Kent’s oeuvre. However solid he appears, this cipher in his starched shirt, suspenders, and bowtie is part of the system he has created. His face flays into dimensional planes that fold in upon themselves.
Kent’s work speaks to power because he understands the power of painted images to spark the imagination and lodge in the psyche. His ornate interiors and their inhabitants, so anachronistic and out of place, articulate not only the anxiety of our era, but the anxious question of painting’s role today. How do we address a past whose ideologies no longer apply? Do we erase the evidence of history, as the cleaning women in Agent erase the furniture and floorboards around them? There is a loss, but also a beauty in the erasure, in the passages of paint smeared and thinned. As to what new order may emerge, Kent offers no answers. When we enter his paintings, we enter a world on the brink.