Photography Matt Marcus
By Matt Mullen
“Only connect!” So reads the famous epigraph in E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End. Connect with nature, connect with others, connect with what Gabriel García Márquez called our three lives: our public life, our private life, and our secret life. For Michael Fullerton, this rule is what animates his paintings. The magic of painting—its ability to reach across time, connecting artist and viewer, outer and inner lives—recurs frequently in the Glasgow-based artist’s work. For two decades, he has been known for his portraits: figures plucked from history, politics, and pop culture, rendered in a pleasingly neoclassical style. Like characters in a play, these subjects are brought together in shows, each given a role.
In “Victoria’s Secret Diary,” his latest exhibition at Greene Naftali, and his first in New York in seven years, Fullerton examines how painting’s power to connect can be used as a tool of statecraft. The subjects of his 14 portraits are seemingly random, spanning both European and American history, from as far back as the 18th century to the present day. But almost all of them wield some degree of capital, be it political (Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz) or cultural (actor and model Chris Zylka). Fullerton paints his subjects flatteringly—a Spanish nun holding a rifle in Christian Nationalist (Spain 1938) (2020) looks positively saintly—but coded symbols and jokes populate many of the paintings, revealing glibness in this kind of mythmaking.
Fullerton points to the 18th-century British painter Thomas Gainsborough, who was tapped to make portraits for the gentry, though he favored landscapes. “I find it interesting how his sensibility became hijacked by the political classes, and his appreciation of beauty became weaponized,” Fullerton says. “In other words, if you start off as a good painter, the next thing you know you’re working for someone else.” The idea of weaponizing beauty is made literal in two paintings: Concept for a Nautical-Themed Lockheed Martin Advertisement 1963 (2020) and Concept for a Book Cover for a Romance Novel About a Corporate Affair (2020). Both works feature glamorous models posing as propaganda for the weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
Separated from the portraits, a silkscreen of scanned pages from Queen Victoria’s diary fills one wall of the gallery, giving the show its name. Fullerton has long been fascinated with the diary. Along one side of the work he painted a bright red strip of Oxytocin, the hormone released during childbirth and sex, associated with feelings of love and trust. Victoria’s private thoughts offer a counterpoint to the outward-facing paintings: here is a glimpse at someone’s inner self. But no one could embody authenticity less than a queen. Her whole existence is one of imagemaking. She is a portrait come to life, even in death.
Published: February 17, 2021