Artforum / September 2008

Christopher Orr

Christopher Orr’s dark, diminutive oil paintings seem at first glance to have been salvaged from some alternate past. Employing an earthy palette of browns, reds, and ochers, and building surfaces on which areas of dry, scraped-back pigment are juxtaposed with richer, fresher-looking passages, the Scottish artist conjures a dramatic lost world in which characters, scenes, and objects culled from popular midcentury print media seem to have strayed into the sublime landscape visions of a nineteenth century Romantic. But though united on the same canvases, these incongruous pairings tend to remain at odds; sharply defined figurative elements drift unmoored across muddily ethereal grounds as if literally cut-and-pasted, and the theme or mood of any given work is hard to establish with any certainty. In many of Orr’s most recent works, recognizable images have vanished altogether, subsumed by a cryptic murk.

In Take It, Take It, 2008, a small bird with brilliant red-and-blue plumage perches, apparently on thin air, in the top left corner of a composition otherwise defined by amorphous patches of olive green, dusty red, and deep umber ranged over a parched taupe ground. It’s as if a John James Audubon ornithological study has been spliced with one of Ivon Hitchins’s woodland studies. A clump of berries hovers to the bird’s right, just beyond reach, while a wandering line defines something indefi nable in the bottom left, and three slim diagonal vectors crisscross the whole: teasing evidence of a stylistic shift, perhaps, or intimations of an underlying structure.

If Take It, Take It and As Above, So Below, 2008, another delicious bird-and-fruit pairing, belong to Orr’s established method, Internal Emmigration, 2008, is of the newer school. Here, all traces of the precise one-to-one-scale copying that Orr has so often used are absent, replaced by what seems to be an exercise in pure atmospherics. In this painting, which like all of the artist’s work adheres to a near-miniature scale, the diagonal vectors have moved to the fore, cutting across
floral clumps of scumbled sea-green and rust, and the ground has been scraped even further back, the grain of the canvas showing through quite clearly, making the materiality of the whole—a clever fusion of delicacy and verve—clearer still.

The Farthest Shore, 2008, represents still another route. Depicting a rocky trail leading toward a mountainous horizon, it is a relatively straight take on its subject that nonetheless makes use of a trick or two to throw the viewer off. Drifting in and out of focus, the image looks almost as though it is reflected in an antique dish or foxed mirror. A dun-colored haze around the edges of the frame contributes to the sense of a tarnished vision, the image of a time and place shrouded in neglect. Orr may be immersed, as Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith reminds us in his catalogue essay, in a grand tradition that moves from one oftquoted name (Caspar David Friedrich) to the next (J. M. W. Turner), but the haunting vein of thrift-store oddity that also runs through his work is equally, and arguably more memorably, affecting.

Mac Giolla Léith, further to this idea, suggests that Orr’s project is marked fi rst and foremost by a “hypostasization of uncertainty, mystery and doubt” derived in part from “the Romantic disdain for reason.” Looking at The Calling, 2008, in which a sharply dressed, clean-cut couple strolls heedlessly into a miragelike shimmer of countryside, a vast female nude rearing up in front of them, seemingly from another dimension, neat resolutions seem a distant prospect indeed.

Image: Christopher Orr, As Above, So Below, 2008