Headcleaner

May 16, 2024July 27, 2024

Headcleaner marks an explosion of the artist’s repertoire. These pictures smash like a wrecking ball – a favoured image – through Rees’s disquieting Beckettian scenes, in which men stride nowhere through sparsely populated landscapes.

There is a new confrontational nature to these pictures: in the hooded devil, his arms spread out as though presenting himself for immolation, the blue nude in uncharacteristically classical form, or the carnivalesque grouping of objects around a trashcan. In its incongruous collection the latter has the quality of a scrapyard still life, the busyness of its composition reinforced by a refusal of recession: everything clambers for the foreground. Existentialist dread is never far. Between the wonky bicycle wheel, campy aubergine, funfair signage and interlinking dolphins, there is an amorphous sense of violence. One feels the debt to James Ensor and the spectre of death that pervades his crowded scenes whose figures operate on the cusp of the grotesque. Rees’s muses of theatre masks distort in similarly suggestive ways. On closer inspection, we find weapons among the waste: a baseball bat with its nails bent, rendered in blackly comic flaccid style.

Rees’s paintings have always enjoyed an emphatic immediacy and unfussiness. The works in this show offer a continued dismantling of the artist’s process to the bare essentials. Canvases are stapled to the wall, some of the paints are unmixed, reducing the interference between intuition and the surface of the picture. Committed to such an unstudied approach, Rees paints over certain sections, sometimes repeatedly, producing a beautifully palimpestuous texture: it is here that the pictures get their depth. Just as canvases are retrospectively stretched after painting, Rees makes these nuanced adjustments to colour only upon its application to the canvas. 

This dismantling of process coincides with an insertion of the artist as figure by way of goofily oversized initials, ‘T.R.’, and references to painting itself. In some ways these pictures might be considered as a form of self-portraiture: not least because many of the objects have something of a totemic quality. Continuous across the paintings is a bric-à-brac of the unconscious. From this Rees makes a hot mess of the city’s garbage: its unwanted produce, threats of violence, empty signage. 

By Sam Buchan-Watts