Prussian Blue at S1 Artspace is the first in a three-part exhibition series taking place this year. The show, which will travel to Carl Freedman Gallery, London and the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, brings together historical paintings loaned from the collection at Museums Sheffield and original work from Glasgow-based contemporary artist Michael Fullerton. An exploration of the overlapping relationships between aesthetics and power, the exhibition investigates a variety of different themes evoked by “Prussian blue” as both a pigment and a chemical agent.
The various historical paintings displayed throughout the space are immediately striking; in particular, the sequence of aristocratic portraits, whose figures peer down at the viewer from their gilt frames. While Fullerton works in a variety of different media, portraits are central to his output, and he understands the complex motivations that can lie behind a single canvas. His selection of portraits from the Museums Sheffield historical collection are simultaneously superficially alluring and knowingly political: paintings commissioned largely to convey the subjects’ elevated social standing. The inclusion of these works acts as a reminder that portraits are rarely neutral images, but rather coded representations of property, status and power.
Equally as aloof are the subjects depicted in ‘Untitled (Esteé Lauder)’ (2015), a sequence of six oil-painted portraits of women. The images were inspired by Estée Lauder advertising campaigns for Vogue magazine, which is owned by Condé Nast, one of the world’s largest media corporations. However, no beauty tips or attention-grabbing headlines are stamped across the images; the subjects merely stare out at with all the sombre, frosty allure of a magazine cover. Meanwhile what appears at first to be a decorative halo on one of the subjects in fact replicates the twelve stars of the blue and gold European Union flag, echoed elsewhere in the gallery on a map of Europe. It’s a wry comment on the fact that our very concept of beauty is shaped by forces beyond the individual, the criteria of which is stipulated by existing social structures.
Directly opposite this series is a full-length portrait of digital entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, who Fullerton travelled to New Zealand to photograph. The scale of the work, and confident posture of the subject belie the real source of power: the US government, from which he now faces extradition charges for copyright infringement. Without explicitly making reference to this context, the painting captures some of the unspoken elements of the grapple for ownership of online content, and the defiance of an individual who continues to develop content-sharing platforms despite critical legal proceedings against him.
Thus far, the relationships between the various works have been visible yet understated, and do not prepare the viewer for ‘Who Are The Brain Police’ (2014), a sculpture assembled from blue flashing police lights. The piece strikes a slightly jarring note, disrupting the nuanced dialogues established elsewhere in the space. Even so, as an undiluted display of authority, it is effective, and also acts as a playful interruption of work that is otherwise fairly solemn and contemplative.
The implications of power are realised most effectively, however, through the split packet of pure Prussian blue pigment presented in a cabinet. A by-product of hydrogen cyanide, the chemical was used in gas chambers in Poland during the Second World War, and its colour would seep into the walls after the murders were carried out. Seeing the substance in its most concentrated form, small and seemingly innocuous, is a stark indication of the lengths of brutality that can be reached when total power is realised.
In a video interview at the gallery’s entrance, Fullerton cautions against the habit of “letting the viewer decide”, pointing out that speculation on the meaning behind a painting is not always useful or constructive. Nevertheless, Prussian Blue raises a number of compelling questions surrounding the exercise of power, and the way it is refracted through different sources, as well as the numerous ways in which multiple social interests can be invested in a single portrait.
Prussian Blue continues at S1 Artspace until 9 May.
Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.
Image: Prussian Blue installation view, Image courtesy S1 Artspace.