Danny Markey: Nocturnes
In 2008 Danny Markey participated in Night, a group exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy, and examples of his work are also due to feature in Towards Night later this year at Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne. The solo exhibition is the first to look exclusively at nocturnes, and will mark 25 years since he first showed at the Redfern Gallery. Many of the works illustrated in this catalogue have never before been seen, either in exhibition or in reproduction.
Often, things become clearer in the dark. Night is a fine example. Indeed, while all of Danny Markey’s pictures focus upon the everyday, those set at night surely pack the greatest punch, as they reveal how the postmodern era deprives us of nature, and ultimately of ourselves. The American author and naturalist Henry Beston once lamented how “Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night ... With lights and ever more lights, we drive the beauty of night back to the forests and the sea”. These thoughts were written in 1928, the decade in which electricity started to infiltrate society, but long before becoming the all-consuming force that it is today. The poet Carl Sandburg had expressed such fears a decade previous; “Night is a great, dark, soft thing, broken across with slashes of light”. One shudders to think, then, what either would’ve made of a 21st-century nocturne. In Markey’s Town at Night, life is represented by hundreds of tiny dots that represent electric lights, punctuating the ‘softness’ of night. Our lives have been reduced, quite literally, to such dots, wherein ‘reality’ becomes increasingly pixellated. Following a similar seam, the rooms lit by TV screens are perhaps Markey’s most poignant pictures of all. In Turquoise Room, the sky is not yet dark, but already the occupant is hidden indoors. The alienation from the outside world is emphasised by the composition – we can see only this top floor room of the house. We are shunned, unwelcome. However, the vertical bars of the window imply the occupant may have no choice in the matter; they are confined, unable to escape or to think for themselves. Here, I am reminded of Jean Baudrillard, whose postmodernist theories of the 1980s focused heavily on the role of the TV. The French sociologist regarded it as facilitating the “death of the real”; rather than representing real events, the TV replaces them with mere ‘simulacra’, spawning a terrifying hyperreality that ultimately suppresses and isolates the modern man. Of all the transient locations (of B&Bs, hotels, and motorway service stations) depicted at night by Markey, it is at home where we are most alone.
In a later development of these thoughts, Baudrillard makes a connection to religion, whereby we succumb to the seduction of the mass media (primarily via the TV screen) in an “ecstasy of communication”. Interestingly, night is, or at least was, of great importance to religious thought, particularly to Christianity (as well as to Islam and Judaism). Indeed, the word ‘nocturns’ was the name given to night-time church services. Now, the lurid, ethereal lights emitted from the TV are as close as we get to the spiritual. Certainly, several philosophers have noted how technology, such as the TV and the Internet, has come to supersede natural wonders as the 21st-century sublime. Therefore, if the TV nullifies human interaction, then nature too is a victim. The titles of Markey’s paintings, such as TV Room and Blue Sky, and House with TV and Stars, enforce this pecking-order; nature is secondary, even superfluous. Returning to Beston, “To know only artificial light is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day”. This apparent dismissal of nature sets Markey quite apart from other painters. For example, the likes of Whistler, Van Gogh, Léon Spilliaert, Emil Nolde, and more recently Vija Celmins and Alex Katz, celebrate nocturnes of a completely natural kind: sea, sky, stars, storms, moon and trees are something altogether mystical and magical by night. Humphrey Ocean – who taught at Camberwell College of Arts, where Markey was once a student – is perhaps Markey’s closest ally. He too paints suburban houses, and often at night. For the poet Rod Mengham, Ocean’s nocturnes “suggest how dormant many lives in suburbia might be; how so many of us spend much of our time in virtual hibernation”. In Traffic, painted by Ocean in 2011, nature gives way to a large void of grey tarmac, along which a single white van drives. Though this particular scene is not set at night, “the street lights glowing in the daytime”, Mengham says, nonetheless “conform to the view that everything natural is redundant”. Ocean himself has remarked how his “life has been seen through a windscreen”. Cars are often shown parked up outside his houses, as they are in Markey’s night pictures. These cars, so relied upon in daytime, become vacant shells by night, symbolising the emptiness of our daily existence. As darkness descends, we simply swap one screen for another.
Of course, this rather gloomy reading of his pictures may not necessarily be what was intended by Markey. Commenting on his subjects, Markey has said: “I’m not making any kind of statement. I just paint things that I like”. In a different interview, also of 2000, he explains: “I choose subjects that attract me with their colours, forms, shapes and light, and with something more personal: something that I recognise and identify with in an image that is partly mysterious”. This sense of mystery recalls Roland Barthes’s concept of the ‘punctum’ – a detail which pricks us, without our knowing quite why. However, this does not prevent viewers from interpreting the images. Indeed, Edward Hopper – perhaps the master of the everyday, and who was similarly inspired by lights at night – often refused to see any personal narrative in his paintings, and yet critics’ analyses of their meanings continue unabated. Twenty years after painting the iconic Nighthawks, of 1942, Hopper commented: “I didn’t see it as particularly lonely ... Unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city”. Markey could well make a similar admission regarding his own nocturnes. As a student, Markey much admired Hopper, and this influence can clearly be seen in the night scenes of fish and chip take-aways in Camberwell during the 1980s. Some are composed of oil on board, others of conté crayon on paper, though regardless of media, they were all made en plein air – a practice Markey has continued to this day. On the counter of the fish bar in Christmas Decorations, lights flicker on a miniature Christmas tree – a feeble gesture to inspire contrived conviviality between customers in the season of supposed goodwill. In another, Fish and Chips, we see a close-up of the male fish frier at work. He is a rare human presence, very awkwardly depicted – it is almost as if Markey is unfamiliar with seeing people at night. The frier’s white work coat is infected with the same ghostly pallor as the shop’s artificial lighting. This is the sort of unnervingly anaemic colour favoured by the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. Indeed, his pictures are usually based on TV stills or on photographs, and so illuminated by unnatural light sources. Furthermore, Tuymans’s figures are deliberately awkward, at times resembling mannequins, to reflect how modern man has become alienated and vacant. This idea is tantalisingly suggested by Markey, via the startling inclusion of a headless mannequin, in the shop next door. In fact, mannequins reappear in a later painting, of 2004, performing a silent charade in the shop window. Perhaps this attraction owes something to Markey’s father having been a toymaker. Either way, they can surely be seen as metaphors for our own lives. That Markey arguably addresses similar themes, then, but without depicting any people for the most part, affords his work greater subtlety; rather, the filmic scenes of Hopper (and Tuymans) are now transferred to the unseen TV screens.
If all the above sounds slightly sobering, then an appreciation of Markey’s painterly prowess should provide comfort. It is something of a paradox that these pictures, which seemingly convey a rigid ennui, are rendered in such dynamic brushstrokes. In End of the Street at Night and in Lidl, for example, the paint is swept and scraped in gestural, expressionist flourishes, applied thickly with effortless abandon. It makes sense, then, that Markey admires Richard Diebenkorn, the ultimate painter’s painter. Markey too is fascinated by the actual process of painting, and has varied the application of his oils, just as the American had done throughout his innovative Ocean Park paintings. Diebenkorn’s early paintings from this series consist of thin and delicate layers, which form seemingly translucent surfaces. In much later works, Diebenkorn favours “more opaque pigmentation ... the surfaces are remarkably dense, seeming to comprise leaves of variegated colour rather than transparent veils.” Similar experimentation is at play in Markey’s practice. In more recent works the paint is thick, but in other oils, especially the early chip shop scenes, watery strokes are used, creating thin, fleeting surfaces. At first this latter sort may appear slapdash, even sloppy, but they are deceptive; each painting is testament to Markey’s command of his medium. Markey combines both approaches, in works like Wedding Store, Ramon Road. Significantly, some areas are thickly daubed, like the horizontal whites of the fluorescent tubes. Other areas, such as the tree and the two black mannequins, are painted so thinly that they are almost transparent, ephemeral. They could be wiped away in an instant, but the lights will remain.