Farewell Angus Fairhurst

The premature death of the artist plus the rest of the news from the arts world

“Ridiculously charming, a radical gardener…and an intensely intelligent artist.” This was how curator Sadie Coles described the British artist Angus Fairhurst, following his suicide last week. The 41-year old was found dead in woodland near Argyll on 29 March. Fairhurst, whose career was launched in 1988 by Damien Hirst's iconic ‘Freeze’ show, was a key member of the Young British Artists. Working in sculpture, photography, film and video installation his work featured in all the major contemporary art shows of the last twenty years. A collaborator and close friend of Hirst and Sarah Lucas, whom he met when studying at Goldsmiths, he exhibited with them most recently in the 2004 show In-a-Gadda-da-Vida. However Fairhurst never quite reached Hirst and Lucas’s level of stardom and was generally perceived as a gentler, more self-effacing

Sadie Coles HQ is currently hosting John Currin’s new exhibition, which opened on Wednesday. Currin, a leading figurative painter known for his exaggerated depictions of the female body, has attracted attention due to his current muse: pornography. His exhibition at Sadie Coles showcases a selection of new oil paintings, some of which are so patiently detailed that they make John Cameron Mitchells’ 2006 film Shortbus (a contribution to the Art-porn genre) look coy. Currin, a New Yorker, whose classical style is also influenced by the Old Masters has made a number of intriguing comments about the works, including a remark about the images being provoked by his hatred for ‘Islamic fascism’. He has also suggested that the images are in no way erotic “when you don't show things, you build up a kind of voltage. So what happens if you totally open it up? Is the painting going to have any kind of energy at all? In a way, these are very unsexual paintings." A commercial success Currin has courted his fair share of criticism, including from The New Republic’s writer Jed Perl, who in 2007 described the painters output as ‘art pollution’. An early review from Sian Pattenden however suggests that Currin's exhibition will be well received in the nation of prudes The show runs until May 10th.

Following her suggestions last month that The Proms are not multi-cultural enough, Margaret Hodge has once again launched herself into the media spotlight. During a meeting for the governments creative leadership programme she declared that within the ‘creative industries’ not enough women are employed in high ranking positions. This may be – The Independent provides a short list of top Arts Leaders which shows only 20% to be women. However Hodge’s impassioned plea to "break down the… barriers to wider representation" has been met by some with lip-curling distaste. Writing for The Observer Laura Cumming argued convincingly against Hodge’s ‘ministerial ignorance’. She points out that, in fact, a significant number of arts institutions are run by women. These include the South Bank, the RSC, the Royal Academy, the Serpentine Gallery and Modern Art Oxford. Cummings evidence is reassuring, but her rant against Hodge should not obscure the fact that the politician’s efforts, however clumsy, were hardly born out of negative motives. Given that it is only eighty years since women were granted the vote to hear a female MP calling- perhaps even unnecessarily- for more female leaders is no bad thing.

Other arts news this week: Banksy launched his latest book, ‘Home Sweet Home,’ featuring photos of his graffiti artwork from his home town, Bristol. Written by Steve Wright, the book is the enigmatic artist's first unofficial biography. The singer Morrissey also made headlines when he won an apology from The Word magazine following David Quantick’s report which dealt with the Mancunian’s (seemingly misinterpreted) views on immigration, as expressed in an interview with the NME. However his libel case against the latter is ongoing.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism