Matt Mullen profiles Michael Fullerton for TheGuide.art
Moment (After Barnett Newman), 2020
Oil and Giemsa stain on linen
23 5/8 x 17 3/4 x 5/8 inches (60 x 45 x 1.5 cm)
Victoria’s Secret Diary is Michael Fullerton’s third solo exhibition at Greene Naftali and his first in New York since 2014. The artist will present a new group of paintings depicting historical figures who embody political commitment— from the left-leaning economist Joseph Stiglitz to a fascist nun in Franco’s Spain. Fullerton probes the boundary between his subjects’ public lives and their private selves, using the conventions of portraiture to reveal painting’s complicity in the machinations of power.
Along with fellow Glaswegian artists like Luke Fowler and Lucy McKenzie, Fullerton came of age in Thatcher’s Britain and has spent two decades examining the role of images in constructions of national identity and class consciousness. A number of portraits in Victoria’s Secret Diary depict members of the British aristocracy. In Three Hundred Years Together, the likeness of Sir George Osborn (1742–1818)—a member of Parliament who fought against the colonists in the American Revolution—is juxtaposed with that of newspaper magnate and former Conservative politician George Osborne (1971–). The spectral outlines of their strikingly similar faces are overlaid with a Saint George’s Cross, evoking the bonds of patrimony and class interest that link the two men across time.
The origins of modern art are referenced in a portrait of an exiled Gustave Courbet (1819–77) in the final year of his life, and scenes of Vogue models recast in advertisements for weapons manufacturers hint at the destructive side of the modernist project. Several portraits depict non-human subjects as symbols of cultural upheaval, including a Eurasian wolf ringed by the stars of the E.U. flag, and a dragon from the book that George W. Bush was reading to schoolchildren during the attacks on 9/11.
The exhibition’s title refers to a wall-mounted excerpt from the diary of a teenage Queen Victoria, an intimate transcription that speaks to Fullerton’s interest in the hidden backstories and latent connections that shape the body politic. The charged atmosphere that courses through the installation extends to the air of the gallery itself, which the artist has spiked with two chemical agents that waft from self-stirring beakers: oxytocin, the hormone of romantic attraction, and Giemsa stain, a dye used to detect cellular abnormalities. Giemsa stain’s distinctive purple hue spans several of the paintings, suggesting the presence of unseen forces that tie his sitters to one another and to the present moment.