Brand new second-hand: Uwe Wittwer at Abbot Hall Gallery

David Banning
122007: "Drei Frauen" (Three Women), 2008, Inkjet, 227 x 150 cm

Don’t expect any easy answers in this old masters-inspired exhibition at Abbot Hall.

Uwe Wittwer is an intriguing sort of an artist. He appropriates old masters – think Gainsborough and Hogarth – fuses them with photographs culled from the internet, and from them creates monochrome images. These then act as the templates for his own paintings, the old masters becoming, via this convoluted process, distorted; the canvas upon which the Swiss artist can pick apart ideas around violence, deception and illusion. Wittwer’s latest exhibition at Kendal’s Abbot Hall Art Gallery shows these trademark paintings, works that have much in common with Gerhard Richter’s over-painted photographs, or the digital manipulations of Belgian artist, Luc Tuymans. Like them, Wittwer sets out to prove that the image often lies; that the idea of an image as “authentic” is almost always an illusion. It is by no means an easy exhibition. Visitors are fully expected to decipher Wittwer’s uncanny interpretations of old, great artworks themselves.

One such work is Abbot Hall’s monumental, 17th century triptych, The Great Picture. The painting by Jan van Belcamp hangs downstairs, depicting the tenacious Lady Anne Clifford at various stages in her life. Lady Anne commissioned it to mark the inheritance of her father’s estate – no easy task, given that it took her 40 years to do so, and as such is an obvious statement of her own ambition. Witter’s remarkable reworking of this historic triptych (above) forms the centrepiece of his exhibition. It mirrors the original painting’s massive size, but his is a far more unsettling vision of family status. Faces are bleached out (Lady Anne’s head has been scrubbed clean in Wittwer’s version), while a number of hovering, white and black spheres lend an almost cosmic dimension. A deep red pours through the centre panel; it drips avidly from the bottom of what should be Lady Anne’s dress like bloodied teardrops. Two children appear in negative, now presented as symbols of colonialism and slavery. It is as if finally, nearly 400 years on, the original painting’s underlying tension has been exposed, the war-torn backdrop of the English Civil War revealed.

A deep red pours through the centre panel; it drips avidly from the bottom of what should be Lady Anne’s dress like bloodied teardrops

Elsewhere in the exhibition is Interior Negative after Hogarth, another work where Wittwer’s negative reversal technique (such as you’d find in photograph negatives) is used to devastating effect. Here, Wittwer transforms Hogarth’s idyllic domestic original into a black monochrome painting, the children depicted within now resembling charred remains. But it is not just the old masters that Wittwer is keen to deconstruct. Another new work, Black Sun after Antonioni, features 78 watercolour “stills” extracted randomly from cult British film, Blow-Up, a movie that tells the story of a photographer who inadvertently snaps a murder as it occurred (or he may not; the truth of what is photographed is never made clear).

Knowingly, then, Wittwer has chosen a film that features an innocent picture that could either carry the weight of something far more sinister or could simply be an illusion. It is an idea that continues through to the end of the show, to the last series of five, compelling ink-jet prints. Here, in Three Sisters (above), a sad-looking trio of women stares out at us, face-on. The ghostly figures are disconcerting; it is wholly unclear whether they are coming into view or being erased. As with so much of the work on show at Abbot Hall, you begin to wonder what is real and what is not – and in this remarkable exhibition the only thing that is actually clear is that Uwe Wittwer is not about to supply any easy answers.

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