Painting K, 2023
Michael Corner’s paintings are carefully executed in gorgeous chiaroscuro, rife with symbolic narratives that take influence from the masters of art history. In Corner’s latest series, Artifice, he places master works into his own universe, recreating them in cryptic environments. The paintings are titled in alphabetical sequence, perhaps as not to impart much more direct information than required to his viewer. Painting K is one of the largest canvases from the Artifice series thus far; a dark and sombre image that places Corner’s figures, draped over each other in front of Peter Paul Rubens’ lively Bacchanalia (c. 1615).
In Rubens’ painting, hung on the wall of Corner’s interior, we watch as fat satyrs and satyresses enjoy the Greco-Roman festival of Bacchanalia, a festival in celebration of the god Bacchus, alongside Bacchus’ tutor Silenus. Also referred to as Dionysus, Bacchus is especially known as the god of wine, harvest, and intoxication in Greco-Roman mythology. The figure of Silenus often represents drunken joy, creativity, and prophetic ecstasy. While information is scattered about the festival of Bacchanalia itself, it is noted to have origins in mystery cults. Held in secrecy, attendees are noted to have indulged in drinking, feasting, possibly sex, and other acts of perceived debauchery. Notably, the attendees were largely women. During Rubens’ time, and to this day, Bacchanalia is associated with drunken and lively groups, who are often depicted in the nude.
Corner’s figures are presented in conversation with Rubens’ painting behind them, which the artist has reproduced with incredible skill. They interact as if they are part of the scene, and lay dazed, their clothes pulled askew. Empty wine bottles and fruit clutter in the bottom corner of the canvas as if pulled from the fruit in the bottom corner of Rubens’ own image. Questions arise: how does Bacchanalia exist in the world Michael Corner has presented us with? For Corner, it seems that the act of his viewers unravelling the many mysteries of his paintings is what he seeks.
Rubens, who lived in the 15th century, was inspired to create his painting by an image of Bacchanalia on an antique Greek sarcophagus that he saw in Rome. Michael Corner, who lives in the 21st century, once saw Rubens’ image of Bacchanalia, and was inspired to create Painting K: a deeply layered image that pulls us into the artist’s complex universe.