Luke’s Wall — the diptych from which the exhibition sprang — is especially highwire; climbable. ‘What was so different about it was I really had no methodology going into it, I kind of expected it to be a completely abstract piece,’ Wakefield says. Instead, the work took its lead from a painting by Poussin, which ‘had this bacchanal celebration scene, with a mother and child in the foreground, lying supine, and it suggested a tension between a kind of celebration and a violence.’ Of the gleaming tower blocks looming over the epic party, the artist says, ‘It needed some kind of grip in the background, because to begin with it was a forest. I stumbled onto this Soviet building in Kazakhstan, which had a rolling coral facade, and I thought, I need to try it out.’ Poussin’s era collapses into our own.
Atticus Wakefield has unleashed an orgy of spears, soldiers, uncooked flesh, group sex and Rococo carnage on Incubator — Angelica Jopling’s dynamic breeding ground for bright, hot talent. Usually, a young painter taking on such grand themes – power, violence, desire – is a guaranteed bomb. But it’s fun to watch Wakefield, born in 1998, grapple with such lofty themes, because he doesn’t look down.
"Usually, a young painter taking on such grand themes – power, violence, desire – is a guaranteed bomb"
Having soldiered through such ‘a big taxing canvas’, Wakefield became interested in soldiers, battle scenes presenting the opportunity to explore formal compositions of bodies en masse, with a modern inflection. Low Hanging Fruit, Wet Velvet, After Hours – titles indicate the artist’s palette. Bright, contrasting basics with organic touches that align him firmly with his generation. But while many Gen Z painters are making Music for Airports (after all, even space to think, to loiter, to lull is prime real estate in an era of economic stagnation and bone-marrow-level political disillusionment) Wakefield’s work is Baroque, full of ornamentation, contrapuntal texture and polyphony. Spears, bodies, chandeliers spill across the walls, and at scale. Certainly, you can imagine Cate Blanchett’s character Lydia Tár in the eponymous film narrowing her eyes approvingly as the young artist name-checks the old masters on our walk around the exhibition – and like Tár, Wakefield’s themes are sexual misconduct and the struggle for power.
"Poussin’s era collapses into our own"
‘As I moved through these battles, it was like this battle in my head,’ the artist says, ‘between a French impulse of painting – Delacroix was very non-heroic versus Velázquez – there is a very organised, systematised approach to the transfer of power in a battle painting. It just led into this new way of painting for me.’
After all these battlefields, it’s time to move inside. ‘I've been trying to do these interiors for a while, and to get them done properly,’ the New Yorker says, ‘I needed an English touch, because the French weren't ironic enough. they weren't willing to mark the power. So I found a series of paintings by Hogarth – these terribly lewd scenes from the 18th century. It was an interesting game to play with, how to sort these figures into this room, and how to create a kind of collapsing architecture.’
"Wakefield’s work is Baroque, full of ornamentation, contrapuntal texture and polyphony"
Indeed, the Rococo interior’s sensuous curvy lines are perfect bedfellows for Wakefield’s sensuous curvy bedfellows. The higher the ceiling the harder the fall. The figures in the front seem to be mired in such Biblical levels of depravity it’s reduced them to their hands and knees like Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar – or the Wolf of Wall Street’s infamous Quaaludes scene. The title is Business Casual. ‘Having those super sexual scenes embedded in that architecture I think is just so cheeky.’
It is. So is the off-the-cuff, blocked out nature of the compositions, which furthers the sense of anachronism — it’s like they have been left by a Renaissance artist for his apprentices to finish up. ‘I was always really attracted to the unfinished paintings, because when you see the raw of the canvas, you can understand the layers of sediment, the layers of work that have come before it. I love de Kooning's Door to the River which is at the Whitney, close by for me. There's this moment that shines through, of one of the first touches that he ever made on the painting. And being able to reach backwards and forwards into a canvas' sediment really interested me.’
Sure, the viewer is enticed by the electric orgies (wargies?) but she stays for the reaching forwards and back, through the sediment and art history, a subtler pleasure. ‘I think with my paintings, it's never like I finish — it's more like I have to let them go. So that unfinished element, I think, actually gives them breathing room in a certain way. And keeps it fun.’
By Sammi Gale