On Inhabiting Delay - Nick Fudge
Sarah Lucas, representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale, has in recent years, been making big penis sculptures. I was reminded of the story of her Goldsmiths classmate Nick Fudge decorating each student cubicle during the first week of college with intrusive graffiti phalli. These were apparently greeted in the morning with amusement by some and various kinds of angry disgust by others. Lucas’s bright yellow phallus dominating the vista at Venice has a different effect but a similar gratuitous cheek. I can’t help thinking that both illuminate some basic (and base) art-making motive.
I know Fudge. He remains a secretive and enigmatic artist, somewhat of a lost resource to the contemporary art edifice that developed around and later enveloped his friends and colleagues. After college he slipped off to America, a difficult somewhat mysterious figure for some, with a certain forceful direction and genuine whiff of sulphur in his slipstream. His work seemed to have an unapologetically fine yet unsettling eroticism and a concern with inhabiting the art historical canon, visible in the form of some soaps painted with Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci approximations that he was asked to show by Michael Landy in a Karsten Schubert gallery show in the early 1990’s. He was initially made known to me through respectful comments from Glenn Brown some of whose exhibitions Fudge helped to hang. But above all a sense of disappearance, a sense of disrepute and confusion, of not fitting into the developing story; tales of heavyweight Goldsmiths tutors blanking their one time protégé at engineered blue chip gallery openings, apparently embarrassed by the self destruction of his student work just before that retrospectively famous Goldsmiths B.A show. In a photo from college we see him posing in front of a full size copy of a Pollock. Too troubled for that moment, splashing paint over his studio mates work, we are left with a friend’s memory of senior lecturer Jon Thompson having Fudge’s paintings rescued from a skip and an image of Fudge going to work on the London Underground.
Such direct manifestation of ambivalence was to have no place in that first unveiling of the young British artists, amongst the whispered backstage introductions and tutored nods and he slipped away unnoticed with the American poet Tracy Angel. He went underground,at first totally literally then as far as Pennsylvania to Tyler School of Art to do an M.F.A.
There he teams up with the American artist Michelle Lewis, motivated by a shared passion for Marcel Duchamp whose work slyly dominates the Philadelphia Art Museum. They stretch never to be soiled canvases as a decoy and he makes in secret his line of unnoticed artists’ materials labelled Beyond by Fudge. The Tyler Tutors apparently miss the point, yet a visiting lecturer does notice that he is actually doing something after all; she files a report that he is not following the rules of visible production after realising that he has painstakingly crafted the art materials whose packaging she admires in his studio. I hear a long anecdote about a car with all his MFA work being stolen and he finding some of it by a bin in a rough Philadelphia neighbourhood, although anything he’d crafted with designer labels had gone. Armani sketchbooks were clearly seen as valuable. With Angel he drives across the USA, lives in Amsterdam and ends up in Wales. He tells me that the experience of driving all over America, stopping for a while in the desert was formative, a kind of rebirth.
Somewhere, around this time Fudge discovers Apple Computers.
Bodies of works are strange affairs; they are the life of artists, the consistency that unfolds around them, both under their control and totally out there in the world. That world changed in the early 1990’s and Fudge and his work changed with it, entering a coordinated illumination whose virtual truth matched its actual nature. He became an expert in the use of the now familiar software tools that were developed at that time, but an expert in secret. His ‘underground’ became a personal computer one, a technological vessel, a new Rome; the calibration of an unseen empire where images get to be endlessly calculated and recalculated. He seemed to have intuited the ability of computers to engineer another, more Nietzschean world in which a new and singular aristocracy would implicitly reign. Fudge seems to have realised that the digital logics that mathematically level our actual existence had a virtual separate counterbalance that would come to define everything. He virtually decided to join the 1%, to inhabit the logic of their inevitable ordination. His secrecy matched that of the new elite. I hear descriptions of carefully copied User Interfaces. Madly detailed. One day I hope to see them.
“What I am describing is not merely a master-race whose task would be to govern, but a race with its own sphere of life, with an excess of force for beauty, courage, culture, manners, right up to the highest spiritual realm; an affirming race which can accord itself every luxury . . . powerful enough not to need the tyranny of the virtue-imperative, neither parsimonious nor given to pedantry, beyond good and evil; a hothouse for strange and exotic plants.”
Friedrich Nietzsche. ‘Posthumous Notes, 1887’
He discovered and then inhabited a new place, furnishing it ahead of the game with a keen understanding of Art’s glamour. While others convincingly played at being artists, in the real world he distilled what being an artist actually might mean, travelling through a separate sphere where his ambivalence could flourish protected, a zone where his painting could endlessly unfold and build, within representation but apart; one contained, superior and immeasurably wealthy; but also, and equally, a kind of shining desert. He identified, and identified with, the electrical charge of gathering storms,
Early on he’d produced accomplishes copies of others’ work, causing dismay when those copies mocked up the paintings of close artist colleagues. It seemed a lawless realm.
From within this back lit virtual aristocracy strikingly ambitious actual paintings would sometimes emerge, new work laying out a kind of intriguingly abstracted cubism through real paint on canvas, openly declarative and unproblematic and yet with a sanguine edge. But the sense was of glimpsing a whale briefly breaking surface. More recently a yet more visible break into painting happens, a full throttled daily activity where fine pixelated passages vie with thickly affective old oil paint. Where different kinds of light clash and complement each other as part of larger bodies of work, intimating hyper-detailed computer renderings, traces of unarguable interrelationships only spoken of cagily by the few intimates that he risks showing them to before apparently deleting them or painting them out; something on going with no apparent output. I visit his studio in the depths of the Suffolk countryside, we chat to the farmer from whom he rents.
There is a storm coming, there was always a storm coming.
Everything is separated, almost as if he holds Art itself to ransom, at a remove. As if he can. I have a borrowed ‘cubist’ painting of his on my wall, bright green. It distils the essence of Modern Art, its spirit, and brands it ‘Abs’ for Absinth in careful lettering that appears within a partially desultory churning of painted pixels. Different spheres of illumination gather in invisible storm clouds, glimpses of green light as an idea of a glass. The whole thing strikes me as much richer than Richard Hamilton’s co-option of ‘Ricard’; less inanely declarative, it is able to remain infinitely partial and, while apparently regressive in terms of Hamilton’s self conscious proto postmodernism, actually more inclusive and hence acute; a perfect condition for lightning flash epiphany, for surprises.
There is no doubt that this is an artist with both secrets and blasting ambition. But one who will not allow his work to be experienced as a whole. Many of my own conversations with him have been about him choosing new names. He feels that the name Fudge is inadequate; I feel personally that identity itself is an inadequate condition for genuinely creative artists but I wonder if for Fudge it is because his name is too linked to that of a moderately successful brother, a British artist in New York. But maybe identity itself simply bores him. My feeling is that he should have many, but that, for now, Fudge is good enough.
I will own up here to a certain frustration, I, like others, see his art appear and then disappear, sacrificed to some higher purpose or ordination; this is frustrating for someone like myself who basically doesn’t own to believing in anything. But Fudge seems an artist of faith. He got hold of something in his student days with some of his friends and it still unfolds, it is still to come; a kind of understanding maybe. A gathering. There is a cliché that its appearance was down to certain tutors but I believe that they were as surprised as anybody else. They recognised something and invested in it, and yet were unable to get that that recognition was then, and would eventually become, part of the problem. My feeling is that he is protecting something, protecting something from the brutality of fact, perhaps from the threat that he intuited early from clumsily effective peers such as Hirst, from the limited demands of a particular mentor.
(A computer drawing that I have seen is of Hirst in a bad jumper posing in the college photography studio in front of a wildly flowering erotic abstraction by Fudge. I asked to see more and he laughed, he remains reserved).
A mutual painter friend, another Goldsmiths alumni, writes to me from his castle of the impact that the work had at college at the time, stressing Fudge’s perfectionism, his resistance to any compromise and I realise that I’m not a perfectionist, that I don’t seek to separate out the perfect from the everyday; is this what he meant? Was it this that I’m missing? Does this measure my sense of being at a loss? Maybe there is a form of patient distillation at work that trumps the clumsy pragmatism that I feel often defines my own approach; an element of earnest pragmatism that I too picked up from Goldsmiths, and that I too inhabit skeptically to the point of appearing as all the things that it supposedly rejects. Meeting Tracy Angel was some kind of introduction to the rigours of this secretive realm, to its alchemical nature. We talked a bit of Blake, but like Nick she turned away at my lack of patience with Jasper Johns and his work, work that I can’t personally countenance. She showed me a few of her poems; closely worked pages, images and words synthesised. There must be innumerable poets and artists out there beyond the fringes of professional efficiency, invisible, keeping faith, productive. I’ve met quite a number; all worthy of deep respect, but this is something different, a resistance that is something else. It seems to take place lucidly, but accepting of its breaks with lucidity, breaking with any clarity that might encourage the speculators and investors of all kinds, including so called artists, who have trampled on the resistant life of creativity, either through ideology or through desperate ambition, the life that finally defines the unfortunate yet dramatic motor of all this, its self aware romance.
And what of the audience, any audience? I have the testimony of witnesses to the shock of an entire room of Frank Stella paintings appearing out of nowhere, product of driven all night painting sessions, disappearing again soon after, of the queasy response at a group MFA studio visit where he presented his own versions of his fellow students work.
What is being discussed here is work that has been removed from audience, and yet includes audience within its own terms untested. I might have objections to that model of Art, not believe in the magic of something out of any circulation at all, visible only in small disclosures of lost egocentric personal civilizations backed up on a hard drive, I might struggle with the notion of unlimited privilege for some hidden elite, but I guess that militant privacy would also hold true of an absolute erotic art, not meant for public display, yet offering all the benefits of a vessel of fluid desire. Which brings me back to the invasive and unjustifiable cock gesture, graffiti vandalisation of young student walls by one of their kind. I think, without romanticising the role too much, that we are dealing with a compulsive outlaw.
There is that photograph of the young artist posing existentially in front of his lost ‘Pollock’ paintings. Truly, but illegitimately, inhabiting its heroic drama but to what end? Some writer, probably French, said that poetry was part of a disappearing ecology but was as important as vitamin C.
Fudge, I feel, knows how to protest, and where. The battle between the exquisite and the crude is something that he singularly contains. He can, I am guessing through hearsay, endlessly deploy signs; deal them out within his own unique program, tricking the eye. The spontaneity discovered out of the Goldsmiths cauldron, the fantastic creative pragmatism of a Lucas, the cryptic lucidity of Fairhurst, the uncompromising nature of a Michael Landy still retains a unique edge, and I sense the pre-cursive sharpness of that edge in what I have experienced of Fudge’s work.
Along with the Rembrandt and da Vinci soaps that I remember from that long ago Karsten Schubert show, paired with Lucas’s upraised digit on a plinth, Landy chose to show a photograph of Fudge working on London Underground.
Poetry and poetic art lives, blazes, by such singularity, it is its difficulty; Martin Kippenberger spoke of art’s basically embarrassing nature. He dealt in it. Often its ambivalence is forged in difficulty, in not knowing, in not knowing how to take things.. There is an enormous loss when we reduce art to vast displays of common denominators, to ease of transmission, to tokenism and guarantee; to unreflective authenticity. Embarrassment is a form of confusion. How then do we approach artists such as Fudge? How do we do justice to the unknown nature of their lifetime of work, the sovereignty inherent in a kingdom we know nothing about? Is it one whose provocative gamble is that we won’t ever know anything about its embarrassment of riches, remaining happy to continue running on empty in a world painted glib colors by Michael Craig-Martin?
Personally I tend to think that Fudge is a form of disruptive good fortune. He leaves the modernist heroics that he has studied so closely far behind. Visiting art shows with him leaves the impression that he has already copied everything into his own lexicon and is content to simply recognise its importance within his own terms. His art historical knowledge is second to none, but isn’t knowledge as we know it. Another of his peers called him ‘a bad penny’.
The contemporary period of art now drawing to a close, the workings of art appreciation within its policed boundaries, has become, to some extent, an age of off hand dismissal. An unparalleled promiscuity between and across rigid class and category boundaries has been predicated on the restructuring of firmer boundaries, of more rigid exclusions, both to come and implemented. Dismissal of the apparently useless flourishes in a theatre of expertise that establishes a critical distance from the drives of the wildly inclusive democracy that followed WW2 and gave birth to the opportunities that demotic young market traders and pop artists finally surfed. As a critical paradigm that heralds an age of generalised gate keeping; the unseen itself begins to define vision, or the lack of it. It often feels as if the dominant art world has forgotten how to see, defining vision purely in terms of a generalised and yet over defined attitude; as desperate cool.
Fudge’s work, I think, has the capacity to undermine both the exclusive and the inclusive and I believe that this rarity, this pure inhabitation of virtual privilege is worth the wait. It will, in its obscure way, become pure illumination. I guess that I do have some degree of faith and feel somewhat privileged for the glimpses over the monastery wall that Fudge has at times offered. The art of gatekeeper dodging is not a reserved occupation. I can recognise myself in this tale of being chased by an irate Spike Milligan after stealing his apples. This essay itself is a transgressive act.
It might seem odd to argue for an artist whose work I myself have not wholly experienced, Picking apples here and there; only knowing continually reworked paintings that seem to enact the strategy of crafty old modernists like George Braque working to escape speculators and their clumsy one size fits all conclusions; only catching Fudge’s backed up digital realm on quickly veiled computer screens or through images periodically allowed to pop up on social media. I have no idea what will come next. It might be too much for my rusty political correctness to bear, for my skepticism to swallow. His paintings unsettle, there is more to them than meets the eye. The different lights that he articulates can evoke Rembrandt, Picasso and computer screens simultaneously. Michelle Lewis has drawn attention to Fudge’s mysticism, his alchemical leanings, and his use of astronomy; all measures of an idiosyncratic cosmology at work, one partly of Joycean inspiration. Fudge doesn’t only mine modernist heroics but its undigested occultism too.
There is faith here. A pure faith in the power of artistic bodies of work wherever they may be found, faith in the dealing out of possibility, faith in something that bit more perfect after all, trust in pure fortune. In an disjunctive synthesis of embarrassment and perfection; faith in over complication. His approach might well be seen as somewhat precious but it is actually precious. And while I do sometimes continue to have belief in those of our immediate peers whose visibility is acted out on a global scale, and while I do often argue for their work, I feel tired both of arguing and of the the state taken for granted in their wake, feel that their omnipresent old YBA visibility, the paradigm of merely profitable art school departments everywhere, of unimaginative museums, actually hides a truer story, masks a real deal and that what remains risks having becoming an everlasting demoralising shame. Knowing Fudge I can’t help but understand the best of his old friends as finally playing a supporting role within the secretive ambition of his digital calculations. This understanding is a flash, or question, that comes, to be sure, with a healthy dose of skepticism; it is a momentary shock of lost recognition. It’s a realisation that what we need are new problems, or rather, perhaps, the electrifying return of the old ones.