David Austen: Papillon this is tomorrow

Anthony Reynolds Gallery, 60 Great Marlborough Street, London

October 2011



David Austen: Papillon
By Jessica Furseth
Set against garish red walls, David Austen’s twelve white frames provide a welcome refuge for visitors to rest their eyes on. At least that is how it seems at first, as Austen’s small, pinkish people draw you in, nudging you to look closer. But once you have adjusted to the dainty strokes of watercolour you quickly realise what you are really looking at: cruel actions of mythical creatures. Some are biblical, others just ancient legend: Apollo has stabbed Marsyas, Christ lies dead, Perseus has decapitated Gorgon, and Adam and Eve are chased out of the garden.
But before it all becomes clear, all you see is the exquisiteness of the watercolour, a little rushed but at the same time so delicate and precise. Even if you have yet to read the brochure you understand that these images are telling stories, although exactly what happens is not clear; a man holds the woman’s ankles as she flies over his head, but is he trying to help her or hold her down’ Wide-open eyes, comical erections and drooping breasts, everything is depicted with surprising elegance. The yellow-haired girl with the blue eyes is looking at you, peeking out from her haphazard watery shape, but it is not clear what she wants to say. Is she unafraid, or just naïve’ Both, perhaps; she was warned against eating that apple, but who wants to be a child forever’
The innocent watercolour continues to clash with the violence that it depicts, a conflict that Austen seems to have little interest in resolving. The effect is uncomfortable, but maybe Austen chose the juxtaposition for the purpose of rattling his audience. Does grace overpower hardship, or is it the other way around’ You may end up with a conclusion by the time you leave but it will be up to you, as Austen is not going to help you.
The only hint the artist provides is three large paintings hanging in the upstairs gallery. Bright and bold against crisp walls, spelled out in block letters is ‘Hoods and Goons’; hanging opposite is ‘Papillon’ which is also the title of the exhibition. The word means ‘butterfly’, but within that is something else, something changeable, inconsistent and duplicitous. In the middle is the painting called ‘Tree,’ an intricate drawing of a myriad of leaves. For a moment they look like people, muddling through, woven together by the same experience, but looking closer it becomes clear no such neat metaphor will be provided; they are just leaves.