Paradoxically, repeatedly pointing out the silliness of symbols is rather protest-too-much and ends up also reasserting their prospective power. As such, Harker’s paintings ask a question at least as ancient as Plato: should we be afraid of the big bad storyteller? The title of an exhibition at The Sunday Painter Multiple Choice Fairytale ending suggests yes: stories are so pernicious they even undermine our ability to choose, all our energy spent chasing a happily ever after that, by definition, never arrives.
So Much For Our Happy Endings
Werewolves are the embodiment of untamed energies. Raw, primitive urges. On-screen human-to-werewolf transformations, on the other hand, are the paragon of high camp, cliched spectacle. The latter informs Tom Harker’s ‘Simulacrum of the Self’: a transformation sourced from 1981’s An American Werewolf in London overlays a woman in a flowing veil. Like werewolves, veils can be somewhat hackneyed – at least we’ve been veiling since ancient Mesopotamia. Everywhere in Harker’s visual language, there are haywire signifiers – things meaning too much or failing to mean enough. They range from mise en abîme (a painting of ‘Fake Balenciagas’) to a portrait with a Getty images watermark to the kind of fun tableaux you’d use as a prompt on an AI image generator to test its limits: a picture of Princess Diana looking at a skull-shaped bong holding a clutch of sunflowers with Van Gogh’s face on them.
"should we be afraid of the big bad storyteller?"
As we chase our fairy tale endings, it’s fairly natural to think of ourselves as the protagonist, yet ‘Simulacrum of the Self’ troubles the idea of the individual. Harker shares Adam Curtis’ curiosity, in The Century of the Self, of how we have ended up in an era where the satisfaction of our individual wants and desires is our highest priority. Curtis’ starting point is how Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays consulted in corporate marketing and was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations. Governments and corporations alike have run with Freud’s idea that we are all governed by irrational urges and impulsive actions and used it to steer voters and consumers. It’s a tension that’s only been exacerbated by the digital era, in which social media platforms encourage us to assert our individuality and idiosyncratically curate our online profiles, before selling our own ideas back to us in the sidebar—knowing full well that we are far more groupable and predictable than we like to think.
"The ad is more myself than I am"
Uncanny branding features in Harker’s painting of absinth fairies dancing around some wine glasses – a generic stock photo of a toast, which in itself can so often be a hollow gesture, ‘cheers’ a way to smooth over the awkward silence on a date. If Edgar Degas’ 1876 L’Absinthe sees benumbed addicts slouching on a wooden bench in pallid light, Harker gives us the Come Dine With Me version and it’s just as lonely and sad even though the glasses are more polished. Since our wants and desires are largely shaped by market forces, how can we trust ourselves? The ad is more myself than I am.
Indeed, ‘I’ll be your mirror’ shows a kaleidoscope of Dalmations, less man’s best friend than 00s fashion symbol. Meanwhile, lobsters tilting just out of still life look neither like momento mori or rich people food, but just inert, black sea insects. The more Harker’s paintings announce their content is dubious, not particularly worth stopping scrolling for, the more the viewer can’t look away – and as if the tarantulas and gimps snogging weren’t enough don’t-look-can’t-look-away, there are the actual car crashes. ‘If you're driving along and you see a crash, it's like a spectacle,’ Harker says, ‘a modern reminder of death.’ That may be, yet there’s an aliveness to the expressionist strokes of the grass on the road verge.
"as if the tarantulas and gimps snogging weren’t enough don’t-look-can’t-look-away, there are the actual car crashes"
The crashed van is an image that the artist has repeated (Freud’s ‘death drive’ springs to mind) — one with Goya’s ‘Great He-Goat’ on the side of it appeared in the Royal Academy summer exhibition last year. The side of the white van is ‘sort of like its own canvas’, the artist says, which adds another layer of mediation. So, too, is a road sign in a nearby diptych: the luminous green, High Intensity Vinyl points us towards ‘Inferno’ and reproduces William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s infamously overly sentimental 1850 ‘Dante and Virgil’. The primal, high camp spectacle – two naked men locked in a balletic, Edward Cullen-ish fight-embrace, while a demon with pug-like grin is inexplicably just chillin’ with his arms crossed nearby – goes hand in hand with Harker’s 80s werewolves.
From the eighth circle of Hell to the M1, this work titled ‘Highway Hypnosis’ was influenced by the experience of ‘driving back home from London’, headlights illuminating road sign after road sign ‘and it’s just this tedious straight road where you keep seeing the same thing’ to mind-altering effect. Harker superimposes images from Dante’s purgatory in a wash of green to explore our own era of impending climate disaster and greenwashing; the two narratives, centuries apart, play off one another. ‘I wanted to counter the climate crisis with this Christian moral idea that we've always felt like the end of the world is nigh, waiting for judgement day.’ Being warned that we’ll be judged by our sins is another ‘mode of control’, Harker says. ‘Fear has always been used to keep people complicit in something.’ Today, the authority of the church finds its proxy in fossil fuel firms, who have run ads since the 1980s touting climate denial messages or some that even blame consumers; it’s people’s ‘demand for energy’ that’s the problem, rather than a global energy system based on maximum value extraction.
"From the eighth circle of Hell to the M1"
Once again, the prospective power of stories looms – one is a massive climate emergency so huge that we’ve heard about so many times we’ve stopped being able to see it properly, not unlike the effects of highway hypnosis; the other, is the seductive story that we have control over our own destinies – whether it be switching to a Smart Metre or a multiple choice fairytale ending. As gullible, fallible, incorrigible animals we drift towards the latter like white van drivers, blinking, towards the motorway median. The novelist Angela Carter once wrote that ‘No werewolf make-up in the world can equal the werewolf you see in your mind’s eye’. It’s a sentiment that Tom Harker’s paintings share: wary of the ways in which signs and symbols bewitch us, and at the same, in awe.
By Sammi Gale