Randall by Jonathan Gibbs
Randall, or The Painted Grape
Galley Beggar Press, paperback, 314 pages,
In 1989, the promising young artist Damien Hirst was killed after being hit by a train. Toxicology reports suggested that he may have been drunk at the time. The organiser of Freeze left behind an ambiguous legacy; his pieces from that show, a series of painted boxes, and some circles painted onto the gallery walls, have been lost. Nevertheless, something is stirring in the art world, and a new figurehead is needed for the generation of young British artists emerging from Goldsmiths college. That figurehead is Ian Randall Tomkins, better known as Randall, ‘the most celebrated and reviled artist of the 90s and 00s’. Randall is also deceased, but the trustees of his estate have made a remarkable discovery: a cache of images in a Brooklyn studio, depicting the great and the good of the art world entwined in grotesque and pornographic tableaux. And more shockingly still, for the master of conceptual artwank – the images are painted in oils.
Jonathan Gibbs’ debut novel has two narrative strands. The first, taking place in the present day, concerns the discovery of the secret paintings by Randall’s widow Justine and his friend Vincent, an investment banker who had been a confidant and adviser throughout the artist’s career. This is interspersed with extracts from Vincent’s memoir of Randall’s rise to fame. This account, initially full of self-congratulatory fervour for the artists who ‘manoeuvred themselves to a position of dominance within the capital’s art world’, gradually succumbs to disillusionment as the influx of foreign investment into London somehow robs the art of its irreverent and satirical edge.
In High Art Lite (1999), Julian Stallabrass gave a Marxist analysis of the YBAs, which was broadly positive about the work they created, but also questioned the art scene’s close link to capital, and the way in which the movement was quickly incorporated into the establishment it appeared to critique. Exhibitions like Freeze took inspiration from the rave movement, moving away from established venues to occupy disused commercial spaces, but they still welcomed the patronage of wealthy collectors even as they bypassed the traditional methods of art curation. The links forged with high finance in the early days reached a peak in 2008, when Hirst created the gaudy, gold and gem-encrusted auction-exhibition Beautiful Inside My Head Forever at Sotheby’s, in which he sold new works directly to collectors rather than going through galleries, thereby ensuring a larger cut of the proceeds for himself.
The trajectory of the Young British Artists’ careers, from brash optimism through to the embrace of high finance, internationalism and eventual disillusionment, mirrors the journey of Britain, and particularly London, under Blair. While Randall’s career bears similarities to that of Hirst, he has more in common with the politician. Like Blair, Randall rises so swiftly because of the void created by the death of a predecessor, and like Blair, his rise eclipses the career of a more thoughtful Scottish compatriot. After 9/11, he takes the decision to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with America, becoming ‘the Bono of the art world’ and creating giant superhero sculptures ‘in the name of world peace’, while he spends his final years as a stateless figure, increasingly irrelevant, and in thrall to Middle Eastern money.
Randall is attracted to money, and the freedom it brings, but imagines himself to be more important to his financiers than he really is; he doesn’t realise that he and his work are window-dressing, that while he may be invited into their homes and onto their yachts, ‘the same rich people who were quite happy to listen to him pontificate about Koons and Deleuze back in London didn’t necessarily choose, when relaxing on their boats, to talk of such things’. Too late, he acknowledges the impact of wealth on his art. At first, the YBAs poked fun at the academy, bringing kitsch into the austere surroundings of galleries. When the same aesthetic is imported into Abu Dhabi hotels, already monuments to kitsch, its impact becomes negligible.
Vincent’s role is crucial here. He meets Randall through chance, at a party for Randall’s university exhibition, and quickly becomes a trusted member of his clique, setting him up with the collector Jan de Vries in a corporate hospitality box at Lord’s. Vincent appears to be a characterless onlooker, a Nick Carraway to Randall’s Gatsby, but Gibbs recognises that the act of observation has an effect on the object being observed. His encouragement makes the artist complacent: Vincent is a whimsical project for Randall, an experiment to see ‘what a clever, but essentially ignorant rich young financial whizz-kid would look like if he got art’, but in his wake will come richer and richer patrons, the sheikhs and oligarchs who take over the art world by ‘shoving the last of their oil and gas money into the middle of the poker table, knowing that no-one, at that precise moment, had the wherewithal to call them on it’. This effect is a microcosm of the impact of international money on London itself (‘if football teams were as movable as paintings,’ one of Randall’s friends observes, ‘there’d only be four clubs left in the premiership’).
At Randall’s heart is the conflict between the ephemeral and the real. The ‘painted grape’ of the title refers to the story of Zeuxis, a Greek painter of the 5th century BC. According to legend, Zeuxis entered into a contest with Parrhasius to determine who could make the most realistic painting. Zeuxis created an image of grapes so lifelike that a bird flew down to try to peck one. But he was outdone by his rival, who painted a curtain across his canvas so vivid that Zeuxis himself attempted to pull it aside. This act of one-upmanship is mirrored in the spectacular arms race between the artists and their patrons; Randall’s icons of wealth and kitsch are monumental, but he is still effortlessly outdone by his collectors. The modern spectacle of wealth is immune to Randall’s attempts at détournement; no matter how lavish and grandly designed his creations are, they can still build bigger palaces to house them in, the process of unveiling becoming more newsworthy than the work being unveiled. The secret oil paintings are Randall’s final attempt to pull the structure down on top of himself by thrusting his benefactors into the limelight, creating an artwork that can’t be co-opted.
Gibbs’ prose is generally strong, but his style doesn’t always live up to the events he is trying to describe. He can craft epigrams, and even epigrams about epigrams (‘the chiselling out of epigrams is an occupation for those who live without hope’), but sometimes one looks at his descriptions of the conga lines of buggery Randall has created in oils, and wonders what an Amis or Self could have conjured with the same imaginative material. There are nods to Money and Dorian, and lines like ‘mockney patois, the yowling fairground ride vowels of the age’ suggest a certain debt to the bad boys of 90s lit, but the overall effect is patchy, as if some passages have been polished more vigorously than others.
Randall is also a little baggy around the middle. The account of Randall’s rise to fame, and his late-period disillusionment, is very engaging, but he is not always the most charismatic of subjects and the periods when he is between artworks sag. Likewise, the present day narrative has a shocking opening, and a dramatic conclusion, but Vincent’s vacillations go on a little too long. Gibbs is at his best when he describes the outrageous artworks which capture the public imagination. His first major work, Sunshines, is a series of pop-art inspired portraits, created by making screen prints of shit-stained toilet roll, and Gibbs’ account of figures such as David Bowie and Russian oligarchs arriving for a ‘sitting’ is amusing and well-aimed. Randall’s dramatic intervention in the Blairite ‘Great Day of Art’ is another exhilarating piece of writing. Later, Randall’s ragged near-breakdown at the launch of the Dubai Guggenheim threatens to lose the run of itself, but captures the artist’s sense of alienation and disappointment.
Randall is an ambitious debut novel, if an imperfect one, and it is exciting to see an author engaging with the spectacle, finance and the role of art. There’s much to admire in the set-piece descriptions of exhibitions, and Gibbs makes thoughtful points about the iconoclasm of the YBAs and the impact of the super-rich on London. And as a fan of the memento mori, I imagine Hirst would appreciate Gibbs’ audacity in killing him off so suddenly.