Matt Retallick
There Are No Choices Without Chances

An exhibition text written by Matt Retallick on the occasion of Half Awake, an exhibition of paintings by Joe O’Rourke and Parham Ghalamdar

Bankley Gallery & Studios, Manchester, 15th April – 1st May 2022.

‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it’

— Bertolt Brecht

On first glance, you may think that Joe O’Rourke and Parham Ghalamdar are very different painters. However, this exhibition, the first time their work is presented together, demonstrates the strong parallels between them. After all, both artists offer portals into artificial worlds, present alternate realities, and paint as a societal critique. Their paintings are proxy stage sets, uncanny representations rooted in the complexities of life. This short text considers both artists and uses the ideas of German playwright Bertolt Brecht to explore the themes and methods of their paintings.

I will start off with a brief contextual outline and explain Brecht’s theatrical movement Epic Theatre, conceived as a means to address contemporary political issues. Audiences accustomed to watching plays for escapism, to be entertained, were instead presented with slices of real life. He wanted them to suspend their disbelief, to see the world as it actually is, to question the artificial environment constructed before them, and reconsider their realities. He artificially presented actuality and turned those watching into conscious critical observers. I think this also happens in the paintings of Joe and Parham, and, this considered, I make the case that they create Epic Paintings. Let’s unpack this further by looking at shared significances.

Themes include a questioning of humankind, the role of the body, a sense of individuality verses collective, an ever-present vein of dark humour, mismatched imagery, and absurdity, but I notice one of the overarching focusses of their work is surveillance. Joe invites the viewer to peer through windows and peep into private lives. Parham, in the same way, sets up equally voyeuristic scenarios, such as tent flaps that are peeled back to allow witness to peculiar and unimaginable scenes. Their paintings respond to surveillance culture, how we routinely live in the knowledge that we are being watched. We barely give it thought, and we’ve learnt to unconsciously adjust our lives to compensate.

I’m reminded of the claustrophobic salmon-coloured paintings of Philip Guston, such as a hooded figure sitting alone and smoking under a bare lightbulb; and how this apparently mundane scene is in-fact loaded with complication and significance. Some of Joe’s characters appear just as forlorn and lonely, and Parham borrows the hood to imbue his pictures with disquieting menace. Joe, in the same way as Guston, presents daily life, and mines personal experience. His paintings are inspired by happenstance, such as observations from a bus window, overheard conversations, song lyrics, poster slogans, the radio news. There Are No Choices Without Chances, and his paintings are born of unexpected encounters. Something that happened, a conversation heard, an object found.

Brecht, in the same way, also believed in using materials close at hand, often repurposing found objects, as a means to keep things simple and representational. In Joe’s paintings, for example, you might find a towel, a broken window frame, electrical wires, a discarded shopping list, these are just some of the paraphernalia that’s visible amongst the paint. There’s a need to be resourceful, stemming from a consciousness that the world is full of surplus materials. He tells me that these objects are often the catalyst for a painting, offering a working position that’s as uncomfortable as it is exciting, bringing to the canvas unexpected contexts, and offering imagined histories. Parham rarely uses found objects, but the manner in which he creates an image is similar, he draws on his life experience, but in his case, pushes the fragments of his recollections to extremes. It is no mistake that he refers to ‘the act’ of painting. The results are wonderfully absurd, and considering Brecht again, he consciously alienates the viewer.

Brecht used distancing techniques to estrange his audience, to make things deliberately bizarre, so the viewer could not passively enjoy a play as mere entertainment. In the same way, you are sucked into Parham’s paintings by the bright colours, and intriguing characters, but then you realise that the strangeness impairs your means to identify with the image before you. This certainly links to Parham’s childhood in Iran. He watched American Spaghetti Western’s dubbed into Persian, or cartoons in German, was told to hate the West, yet was constantly exposed to its culture. He explains how this gave him a confused perception of reality, and his art became a restless struggle in trying to make sense of it all. There are certainly parallels here with his inspirations, such as the New Leipzig School, a group of artists that emerged after the reunification of Germany. They aimed to understand their position in a newly reformed country, and to make sense of their recent past by weaving together figurative social realism and abstraction. For Joe, it’s artists such as Robert Gober, Paula Rego, and Luchita Hurtado, as examples, where he finds influence. Gober’s use of familiar everyday objects to address life’s big issues, Rego’s painting as a platform for difficult subjects, and Hurtado grappling with the experience of living in a human body.

To paraphrase Brecht, sometimes it’s more important to be human, and this is an exhibition that asks you to ponder what that means, and where you might fit. It is not the culmination of lengthy collaboration but is instead the starting point for conversation; two painters based in the same city, brought together to see what happens when their works are shown side-by-side. As Brecht himself said, ‘simplicity is difficult’, and this exhibition has a deliberately simple premise. Joe and Parham are brought together through their mutual love of painting, and the resulting exhibition is an unashamed honouring of the artform.