REVIEW: John Copeland's Your Heaven Looks Just Like My Hell

Last year, Damien Hirst took John Copeland under his wing. Waldemar Januszczak of The Times, notes that Hirst is playing the kingmaker. Copeland, then, is one of the first to be coronated. His works featured alongside the likes of Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons, and Richard Hamilton in Selected works from the Muderme collection in Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery. He has returned to the venue for his first solo UK exhibition, Your Heaven Looks Just Like My Hell which explores the ‘act of looking’ through obstruction, tricks of perspective, and hidden imagery. It is a natural starting point for an artist who views realistic painting as ‘too straight’. 

His desire to confuse is demonstrated by the presence of many curious contradictions. Half of the works feature nudity and This Is Not My Beautiful House (2014) depicts sex. Artlyst noted the exhibition’s ‘bouncy Pop eroticism’. Yet there is almost no sexual energy present: women pose as if they are clothed and wear disinterested expressions. This is even stranger than it first appears as many of the works originated from vintage Playboy magazines. Elsewhere, the bikers in the background of A Loud Silence (2015) are curiously lacking in masculinity; the dinner party attendees in Wrong Was Always Right (2013) appear disconnected from one another and isolated. The purpose of these contradictions is to make the audience consider their perspective more carefully.

Copeland starts with mid-century magazine pull-outs before splicing them together. Cut You in Half, and Count the Rings (2014) feels more like a collage than a painting. It’s like seeing a page of the artist’s personal scrapbook. One longs to see more of the process: the cuts that made it; those that didn’t. Yet as Copeland is trying to change the way we look, this would go against the message. The exhibition is tightly presented. Little information is presented on the artwork or the artist. This prevents an authorised perspective, which would limit the array of perspectives that people would consider taking, from developing.

Unfortunately, the works that are most on theme are the least impactful. The desire to drive home a message of challenging perspectives inherently reduces their appeal. That, it would be argued, is the point of the artwork: it is not meant to give everything away straight away. Indeed there are positive experiences to be gained from viewing them. Deciphering their messages can be particularly rewarding. However, the pieces that catch the eye, such as A Man Must Look Around (2010) and A Difficult Set of Instructions (2015), are some of the more straightforward. This is not to say that they are devoid of message, but rather that they seek to do it through content rather than at the expense of aesthetics. Ultimately, Copeland succeeds when the distortions and imagery are kept under control.

Fundamentally, Copeland is an incredibly talented artist. The usage of acrylic and oil paints, sometimes up to an inch thick, and an array of brush techniques demonstrate a mastery of the form that is enthralling. Deft touches and subtle swirls are scattered across his work; spotting them is a delightfully rewarding experience for the viewer. These are not simply ego-stroking acts. The eruption at the centre of A Loud Silence (2015) is made much more striking by the sheer weight of paint loaded onto the canvas, particularly when compared to the lightness used on the resting figure in the foreground. Elsewhere, differing brushstroke styles are used to illustrate the emotions of the faceless figures in A Spider’s Bones (2015), short, sharp, and almost violent, and My Favorite Terrible Ideas (2015), long, soft, and delicate. This level of control allows for Copeland’s art to appeal regardless of the message.

Near Newport Street Gallery, there is a blue plaque poorly fixed to an underpass. Claiming to be commissioned by the London County Council (dissolved in 1965), it is dedicated to “Buddleia Davidii [sic], Chinese Explorer & Butterfly Friend” who lived on the site from 1998 to 2010. Yet rather than a globe-trotting Chinese entomologist, Buddleja Davidii is, in fact, a Chinese plant commonly called butterfly-bush. The execution of this fake plaque is sloppy, but its attempt to subvert perceptions is successful. Fifty yards away, John Copeland has achieved the opposite. He may view realistic painting as ‘too straight’, but he is bloody good at it.

Rachel Howard also has an exhibition downstairs; go see that as well. Your Heaven is my Hell is on from 21 Feb., to 28 May at the Newport St Gallery, London. 

'John Copeland: Your Heaven Looks Just Like My Hell' runs from 21st February to 28th May at Newport Street Gallery. 

Barney Trimble