Marcelle Hanselaar, Rui Matsunaga, Nahem Shoa

At Jessica Carlisle, London

Contemporary artists explore new media (doesn’t that sound dated) and expand (as in fields), or merge disciplines (post-medium): but the stubborn still choose painting. Not because they are bound to an anachronistic medium; but because paint, and the compulsion to imagine through the very process of painting, constructs a speculative relationship to the imagination.

On the northern edge of the burgeoning gallery district of Mayfair & St James’s, Jessica Carlisle continues to develop a fascinating and varied exhibition programme. The latest show at this venue, it’s only the fifth, presents recent paintings by three very different figurative painters: Marcelle Hanselaar, Rui Matsunaga and Nahem Shoa.

‘Hard Boiled Wonderland’, consists of relatively small-scale works, each drawing on an aspect of the Surrealist impulse to render the imagination visible. In this respect, these painters are linked conceptually rather than stylistically. Their particular differences (from the use of colour, incorporating drawing skills, to presenting varied subject matter scenarios) provide proof that imaginative ambition is relevant to any notion of contemporaneity.

The title of the show references Haruki Murakami’s surreal/sci-fi novel, ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World’, a double narrative tale of the imagination that explores notions of the ‘self’ and the necessity for memory and for history. Applied to this show, the depiction of our fellow humans, or spaces we might inhabit, connects us to the past and future in the present, or the presence, of the paintings.

There is a clear sense of historical tradition too, echoing back to the Symbolists and the Surrealists in particular. But Hanselaar, Matsunaga and Shoa demonstrate that artists continue in a particular role to be visual diviners and prophets for the 21st century and beyond. In these paintings, human relationships (personal and societal) are played out in the broader environment of endangered, or indifferent, nature. Without sentiment, a scenario of post-industrial breakdown, war on the streets and global conflict underlies much of the imagery. There is ample room for the imagination to make presumptions and assumptions – or to remain baffled but intrigued.

Marcelle Hanselaar is a London based, Dutch artist obsessed with drawing and has an established reputation as a printmaker. The paint application reveals her draughts(wo)manship bias as the medium is drawn on with the brush, or palette knifed just enough to just take the eye back to the surface of the support. The paint is generally thin and sparse – adding a visual frisson. The visual force of her work is Goyaesque in intensity and her imagery draws impressive parallels with the Portuguese/British artist Paula Rego. When we discussed the work recently, Hanselaar commented that she sees herself as a “straightforward painter” and that she wants her images to “rattle your cage”. And so she does.

She also acknowledges a feminist voice of dissent against the pressures forced on people, especially (though not exclusively) women, within a patriarchal society. In ‘Snake Charmer’ and ‘Sweet Nothings’ (both 2016) she presents two ‘busty’, but not so young, females – sexualised, as is their fate for the male gaze. Understandably, both are featured with dissatisfied expressions. In the former, the snake (or the serpent from the Garden?) is clutched at the neck, whilst two clown-like figures view her from a safe distance. In ‘Sweet Nothings’, another shapely female, dressed in athletic costume, indifferently holds a small monkey, suspended on a string or a lead. Perhaps the animal has untied or broken its tether? When asked about this painting she replied that, “my monkeys are like 17th century (Flemish) genre paintings, referring to lust etc. – but in this painting men/mankind. Often in paintings the monkey has a chain and is either chained to something or has escaped, for a bit at least.”

The most narratively loaded work in the show is undoubtedly, ‘Adoration in the Wilderness’ (2013), and she describes her process of composition as employing a “stream of consciousness” approach. ‘Adoration’ presents a small group of four figures that take part in a kind of psychodynamic ‘play for today’. They form a troubled band of commedia dell’arte performers – only the comedy presents a dark humour that clearly invites interpretation.

A naked woman, eyes closed, appears to kneel before a smoking chimney (bandaged as a limb would be) placed on a chair or stool. A tarpaulin, suggestive of a temporary shantytown feature (or a migrant shelter at Calais), is supported on four stakes, penetrated by the chimney. The adoration may be for a broken god of sorts and the viewer might interpret the Holocaust; a Freudian phallic symbol; a reference to Lautréamont’s surreal, “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”; or simply an absurd object that is no more than a chimney.

A figure to the left, (presumably a man) wears a rabbit mask and holds an ineffective whip – or a tail. To one side, and staring at the woman and various props in the centre, stands a black African boy – a child soldier – with two rifles tied to his upper body. But his arms are tied too, disabling any use of the weapons and enslaving him in a post-colonial war. In this instance, appropriated in part by Hanselaar from ‘Head of a Black Man’ (c.1640) by Govert Flinck (a pupil of Rembrandt), the link to her Dutch forbears is maintained.

Furthermore, in the distance, a factory-type building with a watchtower, reminds us of the proto-surreal atmosphere of De Chirico’s architectural settings. But the title of the composition focuses the mind and we see that not only the naked woman, but also the whole group, are arranged around the centrepiece as representatives of humankind. This, Hanselaar explained, creates an “adoration in togetherness (and) desires creating objects”. Therefore, her painted objects and figures act as signifiers, but the meanings are moveable and non-didactic.

If Hanselaar’s visceral imagery was hard-hitting, shocking and raw, the titles of Nahem Shoa’s images, including ‘Holy Family’, ‘New Dawn’, ‘Coke Head’ and ‘Drug Dealers’, might suggest an equally disturbing range of subject matter. But the stained patches of colour will draw you in seductively. Here the world is filtered through kaleidoscopic spectacles, but the characters are not so at ease, or they appear lost in thought.

The figures, and implied relationships between them, dominate but there is initially a pleasurable encounter with the backgrounds of greens, reds and blues. A symbolist feel, reminiscent of Paul Sérusier or Odilon Redon, is re-imagined into narratives that undermine simple aesthetic visual pleasures. There is some awkwardness in the depiction of the figures, but this potential flaw is overcome by the creation of immersive and vibrant atmospheres. This is especially so in, ‘Emerald Pool’ (2016), one of the more uplifting images on display, in which a yellow light filtered into a magical realism, lights up the sky. In the teal-blue pool a distant planet or star is reflected and glows with an aura. The lone observer reaches out as if about to embrace this otherworldly apparition.

Coming back to earth, ‘Brightly Coloured Birds of The Night’ (2016) appears to offer a surreal twist on the fateful encounters of individuals in dangerous places, such as the modern city. A central figure, a child, is lost in thought as a predator lurks from within a hedge and two other figures appear oblivious to any danger. With a poetic rather than a gritty sensibility, Shoa’s tantalisingly visionary images propose a social realism that eschews black and white starkness or the more obvious narratives of urban despair, and engages in pure joy with colour. This apparent contradiction heightens the visual impact.

Offering yet another set of characteristics to the semblance of another world – creepily related to our own, but distilled and disfigured by the imagination – Rui Matsunga, is developing a hybrid visual language from the background of her Japanese culture.

After graduating from the RA Schools in 2002, an inherent ‘hipness’ with hints of psychedelia and a pop cartoon scenario, her work has evolved more recently to acknowledge the more traditional Japanese aesthetic of a non-perspectival space. But the works on display here references an earthbound, physicality, albeit with spacious, empty backdrops that suggest we view the action from an elevated position.

These might be illustrations for fairy tales not yet written. The animated figures, slightly unhinged, enduring ritual, sleepy or playful, seem at home in their habitat. There is a painterly rendering amounting to a distinguished super-realism, demonstrating impressive technical skill, in Matsunga’s visual language. The great attention to detail makes her world convincing.

This invented landscape might be a place we could visit. Maybe it’s on the edge of town where the countryside begins; or perhaps this wonderland is ‘beyond the pale’, where we are no longer safe. Either way, it’s a strange, unknown domain. It’s a bit weird out there and scraps of cloth in some of the images indicate strong currents of air. There’s a lonesome kite too; plus numerous feathers, skulls (human and animal), live frogs and a lot of rabbits.

In ‘Chanting Chrysalis’ (2016) the frogs might be celebrating the end of the world and the beginning of a new dawn. Post apocalypse.

This time and place conundrum is perceptible in ‘Moonlight Muncher’ (2016) and ‘Traveller’s Track’ (2016), making a fascinating pairing. Skeletal remains represent the past and Matsunga’s own paintings are depicted on wall debris in an eerie futurescape. Again, the landscape is almost barren (as is Hanselaar’s), the trees indicate some semblance of a fecund nature, but are almost leafless.

Mother Nature got into trouble whilst were here. Though soon the animals will be free to do as they wish.

Matsunga’s strange scenarios add up to a believable fiction, which has the filmic quality of CBI animation meeting Hieronymus Bosch and Richard Dadd. It’s not-quite-Anime, but there’s a Japanese twist and the images are morphed into the future. These works, and her earlier series, make for an interesting hybrid that will be interesting to see in a future retrospective that charts a longer period of this artist’s nascent career.

Does this exhibition sound bleak? Not necessarily. This diverse, and at times perverse, range of imagery reinforces the characteristic of painting for making sense, and non-sense, of this world. Whatever other media are acquisitioned in the pursuit of having something to say; paint remains an option.

For painting works in its own unique realm and can impose unwavering conditions for apprehension. This includes duration, and paintings demand time to be comprehended (sometimes over decades). Paintings also rely very much on the viewer’s input and a willingness to suspend overreliance on the quotidian. We have to meet painting on its own terms, where any implied narrative is, first and foremost, purely visual and embodied in the medium itself – independent of verbal or written commentary. Which is not to say that criticality does not have a place, especially where the contemporary status of painting is concerned. But, if we thought that paintings were mute, in the literal sense, the images in Hard Boiled Wonderland might be setting off fireworks in the mind.