The Quick and the Dead: When artists stare at each other

19 October 2018 09:28

‘How many dead bodies have you seen, young man?’ Maggi Hambling asks me.

We are surrounded by paintings of her friend, the artist Sebastian Horsley, who died from a drug overdose in 2010. Across a wall of small canvases, he seems to disintegrate, bled out in thick splodges of brushstrokes. Moments earlier, I made the comment that Horsley’s eyes are closed in many of these pictures. In one, his face is gone completely, leaving a skull, grimacing and pink.

‘Did they have their eyes shut?’ she presses. ‘I saw one with its eyes open.’

Horsley is the ghost in the room of artists that make up The Quick and the Dead, an exhibition that opens this weekend in the Jerwood Gallery; a black-tiled box overlooking the fishing boats on Hastings’ shore. In it, the painter and sculptor Hambling has woven a web of gazes between five artists – Sarah Lucas, Julian Simmons, Juergen Teller, Sebastian Horsley and herself. Eyes fill the space, as each artist becomes a subject and maker in turn.

The story goes like this: Horsley, the dead member of the exhibition, introduced Lucas to Hambling in the Colony Club in Soho in 2005. It just so happened that Hambling and Lucas shared a birthday, which was enough of a bridge for friendship to travel on, and, through Lucas, Hambling met Simmons (Lucas’ partner). Separate to all this, Hambling and Teller also made pictures of each other. The show is therefore a collection of representations and reciprocations, with Hambling’s paintings of the others shown against their versions of her.

Hambling may be the common connection in this web, but the exhibition opens and closes with Horsley. In 2000, the artist and self-described dandy travelled to the Philippines to be crucified. He followed through with it (the nails are also included in the exhibition), refused painkillers, passed out from the pain and narrowly avoided serious injury after the cross collapsed. Sarah Lucas was there to document what happened, and a photograph from the trip hangs on the wall.

The Crucifixion Nails of Sebastian Horsley

Sebastian Horsley

Opposite this photo, Hambling’s painting of Lucas frames the artist beside a mass of breasts, eggs, banana and legumes; objects the artist has used at one point or another in her work. Lucas’ own sculpture of Hambling is nearby, called ‘Magi’ and made up of a toilet bowl with two lightbulbs hung around a clothes hanger. It’s a stark, elegant assemblage, all electric breasts and porcelain maw.

Simmons’ ‘MAGGI’, meanwhile, is a vortex of concentric circles, centred on an open blue eye that stares down Hambling’s own painting of Simmons on the opposite wall – topless and beside the eye of a whirlpool. According to the artist, the idea to have him pose like this came after a departing hug at a party: ‘I felt his tits. I said, “great tits.” I must have your tits in a painting.’

This leads to the strongest pairing of the exhibition: between Hambling and Teller. The German photographer posed for Hambling earlier this year, resulting in four charcoal sketches of Teller’s face that, seen in order, seem to unravel around his eyes. The final picture in the series is of a barely-contained Teller holding a smartphone and pointing it at the viewer. He used the phone to take a picture of Hambling as she drew him, and the photograph hangs on the opposite wall.

It’s a great shot. A fag-wielding Hambling looks out, half obscured by the rough texture of a canvas. It’s as if she’s opening a door, studying the person standing on the other side. Perhaps it’s the contrast between Hambling’s wild lines and the cool detail of Teller’s photograph, or between Hambling’s stare and the cyclops-lens of Teller’s smartphone, but this pairing feels the most like two artists eyeing each other up; part shared appreciation, part power struggle.

Juergen Teller’s photograph of Maggi Hambling

‘I’d always been rather terrified of him,’ says Hambling. ‘And he apparently had always been rather terrified of me. But we got on like a house on fire.

‘I don’t know what faces I pull and the rest of it, because I’m so involved in trying to find the spirit of the person with a bit of charcoal and paint. So I don’t know what I look like when I’m working, but apparently I look like that.’

The sparse curation of the show gives each artwork room to stare back at its partner, which makes the final room a jolt. Instead of a stare-down, these four walls are dedicated to Hambling’s paintings of Horsley – some before his death, some after. Compared to the open eyes of the living artists that glare and gawk and gaze and goggle, Horsley’s closed eyes leave no entry, no reciprocation. Instead, the dead man’s face seems to melt away under our scrutiny, leaving a skull, grimacing and pink.

‘How many dead bodies have you seen, young man?’ she asks me when I point out the closed eyes. ‘Did they have their eyes shut? I saw one with its eyes open.’