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Arousing Pity: Thoughts on Alec Kronacker’s ‘Life at Sea’, Anna Bunting-Branch, June 2012

We had a recurrent conversation about the word cleavage. It began in our studio as we discussed Misty Cleavage – a modestly sized yet epically scaled painting, hanging (newly finished) on the studio wall. Cleavage. We enjoyed its phonetic resonance to “cliff edge” and all that this insinuated: a sense of danger, a state of insecurity, the sensation of falling, jumping or having been pushed…

In ‘Life at Sea’ we are invited to set sail on an adventure. As our boat navigates this psychological topography we glimpse at scenes remembered or imagined, and survey landscapes populated by figures of nostalgia. Alec has said that, for him, the motif of the sea evokes a sense of “fantasy” and of “drifting, dreaming and being free”. In this state of being unmoored, however, we are also cast adrift amidst the unknown: the sea induces fear as much as a sense of freedom.

The boat is a device which, like the cinematic frame, the panel of a comic book or the edge of a painting, serves to delimit the play of imagination within the world of material ‘reality’. In ‘Life at Sea’ the boat performs as a narrative device too, framing the actions of an unlikely band of characters as in a soap opera or a play. The motif of the boat is at once aspirational and claustrophobic. As with the affluent apartments and well-heeled protagonists that featured in Alec’s earlier works, here we are reminded that having all the trappings does not necessarily serve to surmount the sense of anxiety which streams beneath the surface. Like Simon and Garfunkel in Out Looking for Songs, perhaps this adventure, then, is also a search for that which we have been yearning, as our boat drifts with the ebb and flow of the tides of anxiety.

Facets of desire – and the repression of desire – are implicit in all of these works: from the sublime to the ridiculous. Works such as Family Man in Rural Intrigue and House of Actresses’ Legs allude to the lure of ‘the exotic’ and the erotic branding of landscape as packaged in advertising, television and film: a powerful proprietary fantasy that is destined for disappointment in reality. Images are drawn from cinematic and comic book representations, which so often imagine ‘the exotic’, the ‘foreign land’, as the backdrop for action and adventure. Alec describes our experience of such imagery as being always “already-mediated”. Through Western eyes these strange and unknown landscapes are perceived as simultaneously sensual and threatening, alluring and deadly, rendered here with a characteristic lightness of touch, such tropes play out to humorous effect.

Representations of women, in particular, abound with a sense of aroused dread. All your dreams are on their way (but you won’t know them when they arrive) and Misty Cleavage, for example, play up the cultural codification of woman-as-place, woman-as-vessel, woman-as-landscape: huge, powerful and dominating. It seems to me that in such works Alec assumes the role of the “depressive masochist”. Such a position, Phil Powrie* notes, engenders the “submission to the fantasy of childhood dominated by the all-powerful mother”, adding that through such escapism men act to “sentimentalize their failure” in a ‘post-feminist’ society. In this role Alec seems to entertain notions of repressed desire and anxious masculinity through depictions in which “all men are weak, and the women strong.”

The persistent disavowal of the power of the masculine subject is evidenced by portrayals of a cast of bemused male characters, the punning titles, and the knowingly twee aesthetic of the work. These paintings set the scene for the acting-out of the neuroses of the anxious modern-man’s relationship to women and to the world, as well as fantasies of a “new sexless man” who, Powrie notes, “owes nothing to the father and phallic sexuality.” Simon and Garfunkel, apparently inseparable recurring protagonists in ‘Life at Sea’, seem to embody this child-like asexuality and a reverie of Platonic love.

These works, then, might be said to frame views of a landscape of masculinity, reflecting John Beynon’s** notion of “a more fluid, bricolage” contemporary sexuality, which “‘channel-hop[s]’ across versions of the masculine.” Through the re-deployment of what Alec describes as “shorthand” images from popular culture as tightly constructed paintings, drawings and collages, the works in Life at Sea explore cultural – as well as personal – imaginings: fantasies and fears, anxieties and repressed desires.

* Phil Powrie, ‘French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and The Crisis of Masculinity’, Clarendon Press, 1997, p. 46-49
** John Beynon, ‘Masculinities and Culture’, Open University Press, 2002, p. 6

Alec Kronacker, born 1981, Antwerp, lives and works in London. He graduated with an MFA from the Slade School of Art, 2011. Selected group exhibitions include Likeable, Supercollider, Blackpool, 2012, Threadneedle Prize, 2011, New Contemporaries, 2010, Jerwood Contemporary Painters, 2007.