Myths of history

The Old, 2009 Oil on Canvas

The Old, 2009 oil on canvas

Myths of History

Combining heady erudition, cosmo-logical mystery and dark seduction, Dutch artist Natasja Kensmil’s new exhibition of recent paintings is a startling and fevered presentation, immense in scope, scale and beauty.
Her intricate black-and-white can-vases cover vast territory, exploring a multiplicity.of theMes including pqwer and violence, creation and destruction, colonialism and cosmology, modernism and postmodernism. References to time, history, anecdote and fiction recur and blur repeatedly. She believes that: “In the end, a painting must comprise layers of accumulated images, added together to create a new image … It is a process of redigesting material and ideas.
” Time in her painting is thus determinedly nonlinear — traditional historical subjects from Elizabeth Ito Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra fuse with creatures from mythology, prehistory, science, politics, classic and pop culture and within this painterly theatre often lurk references to current scandals.
But whatever the subject, every brush-stroke seems to acknowledge the impact of hundreds of years of painters — from Jan Vermeer, Otto Dix and Willem de Kooning to Francis Bacon (all painters to whom the physicality, the possibilities of paint, were as important as subject matter) — have had on Kensmil’s technique, her exploration of space and her mind’s eye.
The accumulation of these fragmentary references leads away from a universal his-tory, making a body of work that is both par-ticular and personal. As the artist explains: “In the portraits I wanted to reflect on the psyche of this queen — full of love, pride and glory, but also terror, disgust, incomprehen-sion, loss and violence.
” Kensmil’s goal is not to present the verdict of history. Nothing in her oeuvre is complete; there is always a gap in the story. We have only many little histories, personal and under constant revision, according to the perspec-tives of the times and places in which they are viewed.
The result is a cultural cornucopia that embodies a totalising ambition reminiscent of Francis Bacon, to investigate the condi-tions of culture and knowledge, to explore the relationship between myth and history, and to demonstrate the potential of paint-ing to revolutionise our ways of seeing the world. — Miles Keylock
At Michael Stevenson until April 17 2010