Works Like People II was a series of site-specific artworks by Tom Ellis, commissioned by Paintings in Hospitals for GP surgeries across London. The project explored art’s ability to mirror society and the challenged political ennui in uncertain times – a theme mirrored in Tom’s show 'The Middle' at the Wallace Collection. In this blog exploring the project, Tom takes us through his perspective.

On 23 June 2016, as part of the project Works Like People II, Paintings in Hospitals began the installation of the four large-scale paintings that will be presented this year in GP surgeries across London. It was also the day of the UK vote on the EU Referendum.

Was this perhaps a timely and appropriate coincidence for a project that focuses on uncertainty and our increasing inability/unwillingness to synthesise the complex and multi-dimensional issues of our times into easy sound bites and over-simplistic stories?

Tom's work at Paddington Green Health Centre

No one really knows what the future impact of recent events holds and any attempts to presume otherwise have already been shown to be nothing more than prejudice, hunches and self-serving zero-sum games.

In this context I believe it is all the more important for art to explore the positive, creative strategies that can be used to address the world as uncertainty without recourse to the over-simplifications of worn-out beliefs and received opinions. The poet and playwright Samuel Beckett, an important example for any attempt to embrace the idea of permanent irreducible uncertainty as the basic ground of existence, once famously observed that, “to find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Perhaps our more enlightened, outward-looking politicians are engaged in the political equivalent of just such a task as we speak.

It is no surprise that the Wallace Collection, with its historic collection and the long view of its art scholarship has proved such an ideal partner for the exploration of the issues that arise out of this interest in a non-simplistic, anti-didactic approach. Similarly, the charity Paintings in Hospitals, with its experience of placing contemporary art in the explicitly outward-facing and broad cultural setting of the NHS, has also provided a unique platform on which to push art out of the gallery and into the “mess” of everyday life.

Tom's work at Bromley by Bow Centre

Works Like People II addresses two seemingly irreconcilable impulses. On the one hand, as an inhabitant of a world increasingly beset by issues that impinge ever more pressingly on the day-to-day lives of people across the whole planet I feel a growing obligation to act, or at least to register my disquiet. However, as a contemporary artist, I am wary of any attempt to reduce my work to nothing more than a worthy and well-intentioned mirror image of the over-simplified political rhetoric to which I have alluded earlier.

In an attempt to address this dilemma I have produced four paintings that make an oblique reference to two great Modernist works of political outrage. Both were painted by the towering figure of twentieth century art, Pablo Picasso. The first, Guernica (1937), shows an artist confident in his ability to use the expressive power of his unique artistic language to directly address the ravages and injustices of war.

Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso

The second, The Charnel House (1945), was painted in response to the unprecedented horror that was revealed by the liberation of the concentration camps in 1944. Here I sense the artist is altogether more circumspect about his ability address and encapsulate the sheer scale and horror of what had happened. Picasso left the work deliberately incomplete and replaced the cut and thrust dynamism of his late cubist technique with an altogether more circumscribed and restrained language of flatly drawn forms that sit mutely alongside each other.

It is to this latter mood of restrained self-awareness that I have reached. These four new paintings, replacing the emotive imagery of Guernica with the innocuous charm of children’s book images of animals and cartoon creatures, wear their self-awareness and the limitations of any attempt to reach for easy pronouncements centre stage.

The self-consciously facile and softened sub-cubist language of these new paintings (collectively titled Works Like People II) may merely reflect the inadequacy and malaise of contemporary social and political discourse. One of art’s most important roles has always been to simply hold a mirror up to the society from which it springs. But I am tempted to hope that perhaps they also contain a germ of something more positive.

With their insertion into the complex, broad social environment of the GP surgery and their subtle, open-ended embrace of Beckett’s “mess”, these paintings might also reflect a burgeoning understanding that the simplistic narratives, political posturing and horse-trading to which we have all grown so accustomed simply do not adequately address the world in which we are living.

Find out more about our Works Like People II project:

Celebrating 60 years of Paintings in Hospitals in 2019.

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