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That Certain Catholic Glamour
Tim Stoner's Images of Collective Happiness

His works from the collection of the Deutsche Bank, recently exhibited in the show Blick aufs Ich/ The View upon the Ego in the Neues Museum Weserburg in Bremen and, beginning in September, in Man in the Middle in the Kunsthalle in Tübingen, depict archaic and everyday rituals of collective happiness: Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on the British painter Tim Stoner's utopian leisure scenes.

Lavender, turquoise, royal blue, pistachio green: the powdery hues overlapping in the watercolors and paintings by the young English artist Tim Stoner are resplendent with apparent optimism and reminiscent of the idealized suburban dreams of past decades, memories of a better future longed for by a white middle class in hopeful anticipation of the coming wirtschaftswunder. Summer days in the country club or at the sea, school plays, tennis matches, cocktail parties, barbecues and summer camps, the smoke of menthol cigarettes and gallons of strawberry-colored daiquiri: Stoner transposes the vision of a leisure society populated by perfect families, neighbors, and lovers into a pictorial world stylized to the point of stereotype in which his protagonists appear as faceless silhouettes framed by a glistening halo whose brilliant glare evokes an atomic explosion.

Tim Stoner, Smoke, 2002
©The Approach Gallery , London
Tim Stoner, Birthday Party, 1998
©Tim Stoner, London
Deutsche Bank Collection

"I'm not making religious paintings," Stoner says about his contribution to the 2001 exhibition project "The Leisure Society" in the Dutch Museum de Vleeshal, "but I do try to make a kind of holy image. The scale of my paintings has this life-size aura and a kind of Catholic glamour about it. What I am interested in is the kind of universal notion that there is something better in life. I think we are now trivial economic beings, yet we still do believe in a kind of holy leisure lifestyle, just like people in the Middle Ages believed they might go to heaven."

Tim Stoner, Study for Costa, 2001
©Tim Stoner , London, Deutsche Bank Collection

Stoner's works from the collection of the Deutsche Bank, recently exhibited in the show Blick aufs Ich/ The View upon the Ego in the Neues Museum Weserburg in Bremen and, beginning in September, in Man in the Middle in the Kunsthalle in Tübingen, convey an ambivalent view of the human likeness at the dawn of a new millennium. In his watercolors, the blessings of a wealthy western standard of living come to expression in snapshots of a utopian society liberated from labor or material care of any kind and evidently engaged in celebrating everyday and archaic rituals of collective happiness. At first glance, it seems as though the search for the Isles of the Blest had attained its goal. Bathers emerge newly born from the chlorinated water of an indoor swimming pool (Rebirth, 2001), dancers in traditional garb join to form a circle, holding staffs bearing ecumenical symbols high in the air (Feste , 2001), families and couples gather hand in hand on palm-lined beaches ( Study for Costa, 2001) or pose for a picture for the photo album ( Pilgrims, 1999).

Tim Stoner, Study for Pilgrims, 1999
©Tim Stoner, London
Deutsche Bank Collection
Tim Stoner, Rebirth, 2001
©Tim Stoner, London
Deutsche Bank Collection

Stoner first came up with the idea for his paintings while visiting a Goya exhibition in a print museum in Marbella, as he explained in a conversation with the museum director Rutger Wolfson in 2001: "They had the Disasters of War series and the Bull Fights (more works here, here and here) and I remember leaving this museum in a deluge of rain, thinking; how could you make art that profound, that brutal, that tragic, with that amount of pathos, while living in Marbella, in wonderful weather, surrounded by beautiful bodies and eating fantastic food? The contradiction between really that profound, emotionally messy art and those idyllic surroundings made me want to put these two things together in a painting."

At first glance, Stoner's worlds of leisure paradise not only seem idyllic, but also flawless and untouched, as though they were part of a new world. While the Quakers on board the Mayflower reached the shores of an unknown continent in the early 17th century with the intention of colonizing it, Stoner's pilgrim fathers, today's tourists, have wound up in an oddly timeless zone in which the "Grand Narratives" of progress and humanism have almost entirely lost their meaning. In this vein, his painting Union (2001) portrays a gathering of a group of men wearing pilgrim hats and engaged in a mysterious ceremony that entails the joining together of sticks whose ends bear the insignia of religious, philosophical, and scientific learning: angels, devils, royal thrones, warriors, heads, Amore, and bats that resemble the totems of past cultures. Yet it seems as though this sworn alliance have not only lost their facial features, but their memory, as well. Their identities remain as veiled in darkness as the sources of the archaic ritual.

Tim Stoner, Union, 2002
©The Approach Gallery, London
Tim Stoner, Patriots, 2001
©The Approach Gallery , London

In Stoner's work, a collective cultural staging forms a decorative component in an all-encompassing leisure activity, appearing as a mixture between a misappropriated mystery play and a halfheartedly choreographed revue. Symbolic rituals that could just as easily be completely everyday in nature serve both to entertain and strengthen society, and they are performed by extras dressed as farmers, maids, acrobats, dancers, and natives – or as nuclear families, birthday guests, neighbors, vacationers. In Stoner's watercolors and paintings, the boundaries between the everyday and the secretive, the alien and the familiar, the real and the represented dissolve in an unsettling manner.

It is a shadowy world whose apparent depth reveals itself to be a mere superimposition of two-dimensional surfaces, almost as though one were looking at a 3-D image without the corresponding glasses. " Cave painting was flat," Stoner remarks in this respect, "and modernism tried to return to the idea of some kind of primitive spirituality in the surface. Without sounding too much like an old romantic, I love that notion, and when I first tried to do it I felt it was almost embarrassing to talk about it."

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