The Most Important Work at the 2016 London Frieze

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Wolfgang Tillsman takes a selfie

For some reason I wrote (most of) the post below over six months ago and never published it. For some other reason I thought about it today.

Perhaps it is because I finally went to get my moles checked by a scrubbed-clean dermatologist who reminded me of Oscar Wild’s Dorian Gray. And, the most important work (in my dumb-art view) at last year’s London Frieze is was taken at Reading Prison, where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated for homosexuality. The photograph hangs above; it is basically a selfie by artist Wolfgang Tillsman: “Separate System, Reading Prison.”

The image’s reference to both Dorian Gray and Francis Bacon is evident. This catapults a new association: perhaps Bacon was painting Gray all along. Insistently, fearlessly, longingly.

As with much of Bacon’s oeuvre, and the very particular picture of Dorian Gray, a distorted, forward-facing male figure intimidates the viewer with his unmade face. However, Tillsman’s piece is not a picture, it is a photograph. Here, the artist (as was the case with Bacon/Wilde)  is not the one dissembling what’s inside the frame, subjecting it with his brush. No. In Tillsman’s image, a piece of thick glass distorts the artist. Here, the artist is no longer the lens that is able to affect his surroundings. Here, the surroundings distort the artist.

The message Tillsman delivers is clear: things have changed. The world disfigures the subject while the artist is trapped, forced to stand there and watch.

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