An indigo porthole of a pond features in ‘Midnight Bacchanalian’ (2021), where a purple woman sits on a boulder, twiddling a thick lock of hair between her fingers. Staring into the middle distance, she pays little attention to the whimsical scenes unfolding around her, which suggests the viewer should also ignore them – but that proves difficult. Across the water, a ghostly bacchanalia revels in front of a neat line of trees, while beside the young woman, a heron chows down on a frog. Presumably, a reference to that old fable: the one about a group of frogs who ask the gods for a king; instead they get sent a heron, who promptly eats them all. William Caxton’s gloss: 'he that hath liberty ought to kepe it wel, for nothyng is better than liberty'.
Bambou Gili's Nights in Shining Armour
Last week, the reflections of Esther Janssen’s manicured hedgerows were caught in the deathly stillness of the artist’s too perfect ponds; meanwhile, across the pond, at Arsenal Gallery in New York is another painter, Bambou Gili, whose canvases also feature bodies of water that act as mirrors and refuges, calmness moving through restlessness.
"he that hath liberty ought to kepe it wel, for nothyng is better than liberty"
The ectoplasmic party in the middle distance presents us with a contrasting tableau of freedom. At the front of the group, a ghost dog strains on its ghost lead, looking back excitedly at its owner. Phantom dog leads are an interesting metaphysical proposition – are there park regulations in the afterlife? People paid to enforce them? Turkeys vote for Christmas, frogs who long for king-herons, and even in death, there remains the desire to be kept on a short leash. No wonder the purple young woman seems to have mentally checked out.
"Solitude, longing and a sense of playfulness run throughout Gili’s nocturnes"
Solitude, longing and a sense of playfulness run throughout Gili’s nocturnes: a cat arches its back on the windowsill in the stillness and silence of ‘Blue Kitchen’ (2021); a cat arches its back on the windowsill in ‘Mo Stretching (Déjà vu)’ (2021). I’m pretty sure that’s bad luck. At least it is in The Matrix.
Another cat appears in ‘Neighbourhood Sleep Paralysis’ (2020-21), interning as an incubus in a kind of Hi Viz Fuseli. Casting a devilish shadow on the wall behind it, the cat sits on the naked woman’s chest. Her tomblike face looks out at the viewer, while a lake glimpsed outside the window behind them is as calm and wholesome as anything. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of scene a psychiatrist might suggest an insomniac should visualise as a winding down exercise before bedtime.
"only a ‘zillennial’ could conjure up someone employed to slim down a knight’s (non-existent) waist"
The exhibition title ‘The Non-Existent Night’ is a play on Italian author Italo Calvino’s novella about a medieval knight called Agililf who displays all the virtues you could ask of him – chivalry, piety, faithfulness – but he’s actually just an empty suit of armour. Gili paints what appears to be a knight here too, with a mucoid shadow, flanked by skinny white trees. It turns out this is one ‘Maximilian I’ – as the title explains, he’s not the protagonist, barely a bit part. He’s only Agilulf’s ‘Waist Trainer’.
If Agilulf is ‘the symbol of the 'robotized' man, who performs bureaucratic acts with near-absolute unconsciousness’, as Margareth Hagen puts it, only a ‘zillennial’ (hate that word, but Gili was born four years later than me in 1996, which seems an important distinction for those of us who remember poor old Jeeves and dial up) could conjure up someone employed to slim down a knight’s (non-existent) waist. The levels of imposter syndrome do not bear thinking about.
Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been sleeping well lately, but I can relate. Kept up at night by the thought I didn’t send that email or maybe I should buy a cat or maybe one of those houses that look so beautiful across the lake. Perchance to dream!
By Sammi Gale
Cover image: Lazy, Stupid, and Unconcerned (Be Yourself), 2021. Bambou Gili