Town and Country, a painting of 1979, looks like a key work in the context of 'Patrick Caulfield 1963-1992', at the Serpentine Gallery, a smaller but more impressive and thoughtfully displayed survey of his art than the one held at the Tate 11 years ago. Town and Country is a wonderful comment on the ludicrousness of one form of urban pastoralism, this painting of a cheap salad bar with its fake woodgrain-effect vinyl surfaces and haywire wallpaper and cheap pseudo-Pointillist carpet leading to a view of what you imagine for a millisecond might be a real landscape outside. But the autumnal trees you see are as unreal as everything else in the interior, and are part of it. Painted in a blurred, dreamy style which is the fine art equivalent to vaseline on the camera lens, this is an ingenious simulation of a fake landscape photo-printed on to a plastic-laminated wall.
The funny thing is that Caulfield's painting does not, itself, give the impression of an artist merely sneering at the kind of place he has taken for his subject. A kind of love is present here, manifest in the painstaking precision that has gone into registering the many sorts of fakeness that make up this interior. Caulfield seems genuinely fascinated by the lurid barbarism of the place, the crass but also brave determination responsible for forging an environment from such weirdly disparate, warring textures and colours and images. The painting might be said to explore his own greatest preoccupation - a preoccupation with the way in which people assemble their worlds from the crazy assortment of styles available to them in the late 20th century. Caulfield's painting, which speaks so effortlessly in so many different sorts of style, is implicitly sympathetic to the world it records.
Caulfield has sometimes been seen as a backsliding, nostalgic sort of modern artist, a Synthetic Cubist after the fact (he has frequently expressed his great admiration for Juan Gris). It is true that he takes his fascination with interiors, and perhaps even his notion of the modern world as a maddened collage of primarily man-made objects, from Cubism. But still he is his own artist, and never more so than in a picture like Town and Country. It may sum up, better than any other work, the peculiar character of the world that he has invented (or noticed): a world of garish, spotlit dinginess, which will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever eaten in a Little Chef or Happy Eater.
Caulfield has always been a painter of the great indoors. He has hardly ever painted a bona fide landscape in his life. Landscapes, in his art, are almost invariably representations of representations - images of postcards or posters or photographs hung by the presumed occupants of the artist's interiors in order, it is implied, to breathe some surrogate fresh air into stale or enclosed lives.
Depicting the sad aftermath of sociability in a picture called Office Party, Caulfield assembles the objects on a desktop like so much melancholy evidence: typewriter, telephone, anglepoise lamp, empty wine bottles and glasses, ashtray. In the background, you think for a minute that there is a window giving on to a view of a church. But again, it is a doubletake, and the giveaway is not just the subject of the view (how many offices overlook Spoleto Cathedral, after all?) but also its slightly odd perspective. It is a picture of an Italian view, propped against the wall. One detail, but crucial to the atmosphere of the whole picture, which is about the gap between aspirations and realities, about the sadness of lives (most lives) in which only imaginary travel, imaginary adventure, are possible. Caulfield is a genius when it comes to investing dumb facts with poignancy.
Caulfield understands that what people call taste is usually a form of escapism, that decor is fantasy. The emptiness of most of his interiors is not merely, as it has sometimes been said, a Hopperesque device designed to produce a sense of melancholy through absence. It is also a way of indicating the extent to which all interiors are stage-sets, mises-en-scene calculated (or miscalculated) to produce emotional effects. Caulfield can be at his most affecting when he sees through ambience, when he penetrates to the empty core of certain kinds of places. Inside a Swiss Chalet is a brilliantly matter-of-fact example of this, with its straightforward linear rendition of thoroughgoing Alpine kitsch, a dead would-be rustic interior whose otherwise modern chairs have each had their backs pierced with a single heart motif. In fact, it is a place that is all pretension, no heart: a piece of hollow theatre, no one home. Thirteen years later, in Candle-lit Dinner, Caulfield is at it again, playing on the juxtaposition between the fantasy of the night on the town (the carefully laid table, candle, flowers), and the unappetising reality: the food on the plate in the painting is rendered with gruesome realism, four greasy pieces of deep-fried chicken wearing miniature paper chef's hats.
Late Caulfield is a less incisive but more elegiac and, in some senses, a more approachable artist than he has occasionally been in the past. Many of the paintings are larger and their construction less conditioned by the desire for plausibility: more overtly fantasies of interiors than some of his earlier pictures, they set various elements (vases, flowers, glasses of beer or whisky) adrift on abstract, perspectiveless grounds of radiant saturated colour. There is nothing remotely sociological about their appeal: they do not kindle the same form of recognition as a painting like Town and Country. They feel more personal than anything else Caulfield has painted to date, some of these woozy dreams of sensual gratification in the abstract, with their free-floating glasses of booze or arrangements of fruit suspended in bright space.
Caulfield seems, temporarily at least, to have abandoned the hard matter-of-factness of his earlier painting and become something of a fantasist. This is art rising above (but not forgetting - Caulfield has not turned sentimental) the banal world in which it has its origins; an art in which sudden fond memories are endowed with the quality of visions. This is art, perhaps, as a form of consolation: Caulfield's acknowledgement that he himself is not immune to the escapist impulse.
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