Stephen Loughman explores and isolates scenes from sci-fi and horror film in his new exhibition, Proven Answers.
“Sci-fi is really about now, it’s not about the future.”
In movie lingo, an ‘icebox scene’ is a plot inconsistency. The term was coined by Alfred Hitchcock when he was asked about an incongruity in Vertigo – the scene where the character Madeleine implausibly disappears from the hotel Scottie sees her in. Hitchcock described it as a scene that ‘hits you after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox’. It’s a subtle disruption of real-world logic that goes unnoticed while you’re still invested in the logic of the movie. And then, once you’ve returned to the cold light of reality (or in Hitchcock’s analogy, the cold light of your refrigerator), you have that ‘Hang on a second…!’ moment.
Stephen Loughman’s new show Proven Answers is in some ways a series of icebox moments. Loughman has built up a body of work around scenes from well-known sci-fi and horror films. He pauses flicks on his TV and meticulously recreates the tableaus in oils. Generally, he deletes any characters from the scenes. The finished paintings are eerie, empty sets, either waiting for something to happen or vibrating with the resonance of something just passed.
Loughman’s diet of horror movies as a young adult included flicks like Jaws, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, classic fodder that informed his first paintings of filmic scenes. More recently, he catches his films on Netflix. “I’m not fussy where I get my films”; Proven Answers includes scenes from recent mainstream horror movies The Babadook and It Follows. But the artist doesn’t sit down to watch a film with the intention of transposing part of it into a painting. Rather, he lets himself be caught by a scene while engrossed in the watching.
The starting point, or thematic container, for the current exhibition is the 1969 sci-fi film The Illustrated Man, based on the collection of short stories of the same name by Ray Bradbury. In the film, the main character is a heavily tattooed man (played by Rod Steiger), whose ‘skin illustrations’ offer visions of different frightening futures. One of these futures (based on the story The Veldt from Bradbury’s book) features children who are hooked on a virtual reality game, much to their parents’ horror; another (based on Bradbury’s The Last Night of the World) portrays a couple going through a regular day with the knowledge that the world will end tomorrow.
In keeping with Loughman’s previous work, Proven Answers presents a series of scenes from contemporary horror and sci-fi films. I wonder what it is about the scenes the artist selects that catch his attention. It seems to be that they contain an echo of a contemporary anxiety, one of the issues that feeds our insatiable media machine and solidifies our collective sense of imminent doom. Much like the illustrated man’s tattoos, these scenes function as augurs of dystopian futures.
“Sci-fi is really about now, it’s not about the future,” says Loughman as he walks me through the exhibition in Temple Bar Gallery. Unusually for a Loughman exhibition, there is also a video and sculpture included among the paintings; both gesture overtly to the The Illustrated Man. The film is a clip of lions roaming an African plane (in direct reference to The Veldt), while the sculpture (Loughman calls it a maquette) is a recreation in miniature of a scene from The Long Rain. The film and sculpture bookend the paintings, encircling them with The Illustrated Man’s logic.
The paintings of scenes from The Babadook and It Follows, presented side by side in the show, both depict chairs rammed up against door handles, barricading the doors shut. “I was interested in the motif of the chair against the door, which is in both films, and I like the gesture it makes towards the idea of keeping the other out… you could push it to the issue of immigration.” There are also scenes from Capricorn 1 and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Loughman links to issues like ‘fake news’ (“though I hate that term, hate to use it”) and global inequality. Other issues that crop up in the course of our conversation include global warming and Russia.
The level at which the show is working is something like Hitchcock’s icebox scene principle; the paintings freeze moments from popular films that you wouldn’t notice in the watching. On the face of it, they’re pretty mundane. But when isolated and voided of action as they are in Loughman’s paintings, this mundanity becomes uncanny. It speaks, or Loughman hopes it does, to our unease about many aspects of contemporary culture, issues that you might hope to comfortably ignore with ninety minutes of escapism into a fictional world.
The artist hopes these echoes, tugging at our subconscious, will make us pause and look deeper, harder, at what these films reflect back to us about the culture we’re living in. It’s important for Loughman that the films are popular, mainstream – both to try to resonate with as many people as possible, but also because, in Loughman’s words, “There’d be no point in doing a David Lynch film because he does it too well – what would I be doing it about?” The uncanny is already wired into a Lynch film – there’d be no need to draw it out, as Loughman does in his paintings.
In a 2008 essay on a dual exhibition by Loughman and the painter Mark O’Kelly, Hugo Hamilton writes, “…we perceive ourselves mostly in second-hand logic, removed from reality, shaped increasingly by the cultural and media events to which we bear witness.” Ten years later, this statement has only become more relevant. Proven Answers aims to make palpable the ‘second-hand logic’ of popular culture that our lives are refracted through, as though we were experiencing a moment of stunning insight about the conditions of our world while rummaging through the fridge for a midnight snack.
Proven Answers is at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios until September 15.
Words: Rachel Donnelly