Jack Mottram, 'Visual Art: Henry Coombes' (The List, 09/09/2004)

4 Stars

Henry Coombes’ untitled series of new paintings does not make for easy viewing. To begin, a portly businessman sprawls prone on a pebbled beach, a shiny Bently parked behind him, and a giant eagle pinning him down. Here, a blowsy housewife shows off her homunculus earrings. There, a ruddy-faced butcher, accompanied by his shadowy doppelanger, goes happily about his business, oblivious to the miniature steer licking blood from his shirt cuff. Everywhere, strange metamorphoses are in progress (is that an arm or shotgun?) bolstered by enough in the way of troubling psychosexual juxtaposition to keep a Freudian analyst in business for a month of Sundays.

So far, so unheimlich. Coombes is playing old games with the unconscious here, dredging up muck best left lurking in our collective id. Or is he? Once the uncomfortable giggle raised by the icky imagery is allowed to fade, something more sophisticated than surrealist pick and mixing asserts itself. This is down to a sort of double bluff, revealed by Coombes’ newfound adoption of a finicky, suburban painting style. Coombes is representing a provincial curate’s ideas of Shocking Modern Art here; the sort of thing that, shown at the summer fete, would have curtain-twitching gossips whispering for years. The not-very-disturbing subject matter joins forces with a neo-twee style to point an accusatory finger at the sophisticated Glasgow gallery-goer, who is, of course, smugly unfazed by the uncanny and dismissive nature of Coombes’ faux-naivete. It’s a cute trick to play, and the result is a good deal more unnerving than Coombes’ warped subjects alone.