Essay in the catalogue accompanying ‘In The Pink’, a 2011 exhibition of Houghton’s flamingo paintings, at Everard Read, Johannesburg.
Each of Jeremy Houghton’s bewitching flamingo paintings offers a glimpse into a secret space, a hidden world where nature roams and saunters. By uncovering the flamboyant drama of the flamingos, Houghton’s work revivifies our mundane, utilitarian relationship with the natural world.
The flamingo has appeared fleetingly throughout western cultural history, an elusive creature that crops up as shorthand for all that is exotic and extraordinary. When Lewis Carroll’s Alice uses a live flamingo as a mallet at the Queen of Heart’s croquet game, the bird’s appearance in this world of nonsense seems utter common sense. Why wouldn’t you, in the midst of fantasy and unreason, play croquet with a flamingo? The association of flamingos with both royalty and childhood has echoes in Kirk Munroe’s nineteenth-century children’s novel The Flamingo Feather. Here, the eponymous totem lies in the headdress of a tragic Indian chieftain’s son, Has-se, serving as the symbol ofa decaying, luxuriant power. On Has-se’s death, inheriting the flamingo’ feather allows our young hero Réné to become “Ta-lah-lo-ko,” the white chief of the tribe. The flamingo seems to pre-date the age of reason, symbolising a fantasy of power and beauty at odds with modernity and adulthood.
But this account of the flamingo is perhaps too analytical to appreciate its appearance in Houghton’s paintings, where it embarks on a journey of pure emotion and imagination. Biological and historical descriptions of the flamingo will not do; these are not the anatomically detailed animals of naturalists’ diagrams. ‘The Flamingo’s Smile’, a witty, elusive essay by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, firmly locates the bird in the twin firmaments of cultural history and evolutionary biology. He describes the Roman emperors’ use of flamingo tongues in their banquets (an early instance of the royal proclivity for the birds), before explaining the evolutionary development of the flamingo’s distinctive ‘smile’. Houghton’s flamingos escape from this empirical context, emerging in a visionary space that, with its resplendent colours, often appears far from the sun-bleached African plains where Houghton paints. Houghton’s flamingos flee from time and space, but while doing so they resonate with images from the most curious of places – a fashion show, the ballet, the streets of a town heaving with drunken, underdressed girls. Referencing western material culture, Houghton’s irreverent titles (‘Hook, Line and Banker’, ‘Girls Get in for Free’, ‘Getting Diggy With It’)reinforce these echoes.
This sense of detachment from the flamingo’s natural habitat brings to mind Robert Frank’s eerie monochrome photograph of a flamingo in a jar, where the famous bird is frozen in a claustrophobic state of stasis. Although this ghoulish work is light-years away from Houghton’s flagrant, kinetic paintings, the flamingo in the jar is still an exotic, sensual creature whose head is set in the familiar half-heart pose. But while the grimy lighting and clinical setting act in ironic tension with Frank’s flamingo, in Houghton’s paintings the sensuality of the birds radiates outwards, pervading their background. Frank’s flamingo is suffocated by the photographer’s distorted, depressive perception; Houghton’s flamingos overwhelm the painter and ecstatically illuminate their setting – intensifying and distorting everything that surrounds them.
In this way, Houghton’s paintings capture the distorted perceptions of a gaze overwhelmed by beauty and unity. It becomes impossible to distinguish flamingos from their reflections, impossible to distinguish flamingos from clouds, impossible above all to distinguish individual flamingos from the seething group. Distortion is at the centre of these paintings’ emotional power, and empirical details dissolve. Houghton seems uninterested in the mechanics of flight; rather, he is concerned with the emotional and sense impressions movement leaves on the viewer. This brings to mind a contradiction touched on by Patrick Heron in his essay ‘The Necessity of Distortion in Painting’. Heron makes the argument for, as the title implies, distortion as a central form of artistic address, seeing it as the ‘natural mode for a creative artist’ rather than as eccentric, or exceptional. But the word distortion suggests that something is, ‘twisted out of natural shape’. This contradiction turns on competing understandings of what is ‘natural’, which have produced differing forms of artistic perception. The post-enlightenment empiricist tradition, for example, has discovered a contemporary creative expression in the high-definition, slow motion views of nature beautifully captured in wildlife programmes such as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. At a more diffuse level, the proliferation of photographic ‘snaps’ in computer hard drives shapes a collective memory of moments in nature that is doggedly realist. But like a misshapen twin, the simultaneously evolving Romantic tradition has produced a body of work in which nature is distorted and ‘twisted out of natural shape’ by the individual subjectivity.
Without wanting to place Houghton in a particular tradition, his work is focused on capturing emotional and cognitive states, rather than external reality. And because the flamingo paintings shun particularistic details in favour of broad, emotive strokes, they are haunted by distance and separation. While the camera’s lens can get close-up for a minute, crisp view of individual animals, the artist’s eye is more reticent, unable to get too close to the flamingoes. Individual flamingoes may merge and blur into the collective, but the painter is always at a distance: unitary, separate and in thrall to his own emotions.
This loneliness is in turn projected by playing with artistic taboos around the appropriate relationship between work and viewer: the paintings incite the urge to touch and merge, but then forbid it. Some of them are heavily varnished to appear wet, evoking the African wetlands where Houghton paints. The look of freshly applied layers of paint turns the paintings into tactile experiences, provoking the impulse to run one’s fingers over the apparently moist surface of the canvas. This is, of course, forbidden by the conventions of exhibition, which require ‘appropriate’ distance. In any case, the smeared surfaces of the paintings themselves serve as a warning against touch, for if we were to touch the paintings, the delicate pink images would surely deteriorate further.
This has clear ecological implications, resonating with the effect of human activities on the flamingos’ fragile environment. But more ambiguously, the evocation of ‘look but don’t touch’ produces powerful impressions of glamour and exoticism. The exotic as a mode of perception relies upon the distance between perceiver and perceived: we don’t usually find things that are too close to us exotic or erotic. The exotic requires a certain blurring of prosaic or unappealing details, a sense of something unknown and just out of sight. The observer of the flamingos cannot get too close, for fear that it would break the erotic spell – it’s as if we might smell boozy breath if we get too close to a poster of Marilyn Monroe. So the gaze which these paintings record is that of a voyeur keeping his distance, with the suggestion that the objects of the gaze are unaware of being watched and fetishised.
But the painterly gaze we intuit from the paintings is not typically voyeuristic in one key respect. Voyeurism usually implies a sense of control – sexual, political, familial – with the gaze of the observer exerting its power over the observed. A disturbing example in this respect is the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s monstrous design for a panopticon (‘all-seeing’) prison. More often than not, though, the voyeur of Houghton’s paintings seems to have lost control. Such visual distortions as the infinitely repeating and merging birds of ‘Pink Fever’, or the dappled ochre stains of ‘To Estelle, Lost Jewel in the Crown’, testify to a euphoric, overwhelmed mental state, no longer under the influence of ‘natural’ perceptions.
The paintings must be viewed as a group, for only then does meaning accrue and a sense of this artistic voyeur’s character emerge (whether or not this is the painter himself is another question). The subjectivity that slowly emerges is that of a male voyeur: maddened by the sexiness, the sensuality, the vitality of the female group. The scene of the paintings is a ‘No Mans Land’, as one of the titles describes it – a place where feminine power pulsates in the colour of blushes, stilettos, and lips that stick.
Unity is an overarching visual trope of Houghton’s work. But, paradoxically, the paintings suggest that such unity is produced in difference. The flamingos merge and blur with each other, but exist in concert with their environment through vivid distinction: the intense, complementary hues of subject and background suggest that creature and nature depend upon each other’s mutual difference for existence.
Nothing is static in Houghton’s work. Like the flamingos, meaning is constantly in flux and in transit. These paintings stage rich and contradictory metaphors of nature, in all its complexity: elegant, chaotic, bewildering, and ultimately unified.