Derek Mainella: It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fineX
4 October - 18 November 2017
Soon after the opening of Derek Mainella's show, the London sky turned yellow. Dark, dusty, atomic number 16 yellow. For many of the under 20s a social media hysteria, tantamount to Henny Penny's 'the sky is falling', exploded with Armageddon dread. By their account it was the end of the world and it didn't really feel that fine after all. Of course, this is a generation who've largely never heard of R.E.M, the American band whose song title is appropriated for the name of the exhibition.
R.E.M. disbanded in 2011 by which time they'd sold over 85 millions records worldwide. Following lead singer Michael Stipe's announcement of their retirement, twittering variations on 'end of a great era' were accompanied by 'who's R.E.M.?' and 'who cares'. Their '... End of the World...' videoclip mimicked a prophecy of their own future. Amid the mess of sentimental memorabilia, the teenage protagonist cuts loose with abandon and kickflips his skateboard around a crumbling house while a list of shocking and mundane images are all mashed together and delivered in a vocal frenzy.
There locates the sharp edge of Mainella's show. We are now experiencing almost complete digital takeover so that future generations will never know analogue or what it is like to not be device dependent. A cacophony of anxieties around artificial intelligence seem to leave us equally thrilled and pummelled by our own ineffectiveness, escaping to a virtual world. A better world. Technology will take us to potential redefinitions of the human body and, perhaps most importantly, the human mind, creating a species beyond homo sapien. And past this time of now will be a future where pragmatic ways of today are irrelevant, possibly lost like Roy Batty's tears in rain.
Despite the apocalyptic sing song, Mainella feels fine. His paintings seem fine too. Their screen origins depict a disengagement with the flesh, stink and detritus that the end of the world might actually deliver. As William Davie mentions in his accompanying essay, in a time and place of remotely controlled military drones taking out soft targets (that's people!) which are then simulated in immersive video games for kids, there is a resounding 'detachment from a physical reality in favour of a digital one'.
Across four large paintings in a small gallery room we're up close but strangely at a great distance from the content of Mainella's works. With compositions derived from image creation and editing programmes, their visual prompts reassure us with familiarity, simultaneously cold shouldering our gaze with the indifference of a passive screen. Take the checkered sections of 'Untitled (shopping envy)' and its neighbour 'Untitled (in tatters)'. With popular patterns of Louis Vuitton luggage, image software placeholders and hallway tiles, they trigger comforting recognition while directing us to empty, temporary, nowhere places. There's also a loose association with the unstable flooring foregrounds of 15th century paintings where deities appeared as though they might slip off the canvas altogether. Comparably, Mainella's characters float at the mercy of a cursor arrow which might just click and shift them into the trash.
Even the titles clue us into a promise-without-delivery game. The addendums - envy, smoking, tatters and no dad - all high in emotional content, mock the commands of image editing tools - launch, shear, buff, rotate, flip - dramatic verbs pertaining to virtual action. Devoid of the physical. In fact, take away the title brackets and the paintings become "Untitled in tatters", "Untitled smoking" and so on. As if Untitled is a virtual person. An unperson.
Evading connection with us continues with repetitions of circular mouth-like holes in the canvas and cut out eyes parodying black and yellow hazard tape. While they evidence the artist's hand, they also prove there's not much beyond the surface. They recall emoji cheekiness until you think about the scalpel carving out body parts which is a little more stomach churning. All eyes glance Groucho Marx sideways; indifferent to our scrutiny.
In 'Untitled (smoking)' film noir sultry sexiness evokes ideas of virtual lover Samantha in Spike Jonze's 2013 film 'Her'. Though in Mainella's painting she sports a spikey Manga fringe and knife-sharp fingernails. She, if I can accord a gender here, seems more femme fatale than lustful companion, with pending mischief under the cloak of the cigarette smoke.
'Untitled (nuclear family no dad)' reads like an academic classification. Naughty boy paint streaks zig zag down the wall though their contrived mayhem is easily removable. So no harm done. Mum's scribbly hair looks a bit crazy. Maybe Mum is a bit crazy. Maybe categorical definitions of family are a bit crazy. Maybe like R.E.M., they ought to be retired.
Derek Mainella's exhibition describes the transitory situation we find ourselves in where words and image gestures give all the clues but bare little relation to the depth of human experience. Well, what is human for now anyway. If Elon Musk is right and we are actually living in a computer simulation, perhaps the best we can hope is there's not a glitch which instantly wipes us all out. In the meantime, Mainella's paintings might just help to comfort us with their delivery of all the warmth and rich colouring of Aldous Huxley's infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday.