There’s something different about Tai-Shan Schierenberg’s new show at Flowers Central: it has a title, Myths. This may not sound like much — and Schierenberg shrugs it off — but when an artist abandons the neutrality of New Paintings for a title with so much historical baggage you suspect something is afoot. And when you enter the gallery and find paintings of the Black Forest intermingled with his usual English subjects, you can guess what it is.
Despite his name — his mother was Chinese and his father is German — Schierenberg has passed until now for an English painter. A product of St Martin’s and the Slade, since he won first prize in the 1989 John Player Portrait Award at the age of 27, he has been in demand as a portraitist to the British establishment. But one reason for the success of his portraits — apart from his obvious gift for getting a likeness — is the refreshing unEnglishness of his painting style. His figure paintings combine an English reserve with a Sturm-und-Drang style of expressionist brushwork learnt at the knee of his German painter father. And after returning home last winter to the Black Forest, he has produced a series of pine-forest landscapes with mythic titles like ‘Old Europe and Deutschland — The Land of Poets and Thinkers’.
The myth of Germanness is of course artistic territory well trodden by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, but Schierenberg is young and foreign enough to have escaped the usual German guilt trip. For him, the trip is a simple journey back to childhood, to an Old Europe that is part of his personal memory. Facing the gallery entrance is a large diptych of a self-portrait head and a pine-forest track titled ‘Heimat’ (Home). It forms a pointed contrast to the warm green slopes of Schierenberg’s English home turf — Hampstead Heath — on the other side.
So, on one level, the show’s title refers to the mythologising of one’s past that occurs as one crests the climacteric and sees down the other side. But it is also about the realisation, as one gets older, that the archetypal myths to which one thought oneself the exception apply to one too. For these myths, Schierenberg has chosen classical titles: the visionary head of a doom-saying elderly neighbour, lit from below, is titled ‘Oracle at Delphi’; a double portrait of himself and his wife, the artist Lynn Dennison, is called ‘Venus and Mars’.
Schierenberg is a powerful painter of faces, whether on a monumental or a miniature scale: a pocket-sized head of a man titled ‘Doubting Thomas’ packs as hard a punch as his 5-footers. But he’s at his strongest when combining figures, as in ‘Venus and Mars’ and another new painting of his wife and teenage daughter, ‘Nature vs Nurture’. Beside the psychological truth of these two statements, ‘The Oracle at Delphi’ is a trick of the light. In the German context, the title ‘Venus and Mars’ recalls the Lovis Corinth self-portrait in the National Gallery’s recent show Rebels & Martyrs, in which the painter fixes us with a virile glare over the shoulder of his naked artist wife. But the myth of the heroic male artist is not one Schierenberg seems interested in exploring. Instead, he casts his pensive profile like a shadow across the watchful face of his wife, which commands our attention. The same face also dominates ‘Nature vs Nurture’, though this time the gaze is turned down, towards the head of the teenage daughter obstinately turned away in the background.
The dynamic between groups of figures explored by Schierenberg in previous exhibitions is here reduced to a stark confrontation between two heads. His interest in body language has always been more focused on what is left unsaid, and in these two pictures the tensions are more evident than the relationships. The fact that family relationships are all about finding a balance between freedom and control makes them a loaded metaphor for painting, especially for an artist who seeks to control tone and colour through dangerously free brushwork. Schierenberg’s painting style has been compared with Freud’s — another English painter with German roots — but his fascination with flesh is more than skin-deep. He has too much human sympathy with his subjects to treat them as so much meat to get his painter’s teeth into; he wants the emotional nuances to break through like the flecks of unmixed colour in the paint. He doesn’t say so, of course. What he says is, ‘My painting is really basic, it’s monosyllabic.’ But well-chosen monosyllables can convey a lot, especially about something as basic as myth.