Alexander Kennedy, 'An Umbilical Cord of Gold' (The List, 08/2004)

Through heavy lidded eyes and the luxury of soporifics, the backgrounds in Coombes’ unnamed watercolours become the Turner-esque interiors of stately homes, with rich and neurotic figures trapped in the leaky body bags of their own baroque shadows. The viewer wallows in an uncomfortable mire of privilege and disgust, amongst the weak but snappy aesthetic judgements of the highest and lowest breeds. Coombes’ style is a very serious pose, a slick yet earnest ruse, where the adoption of an artistic practice or the use of a certain medium is elegantly shackled to the leaden ankle of class. Here, painting, viewing and interpretation become leisure, but also where the artist, viewer and critic’s easy reliance on their parasitic relationship is eloquently questioned.

With eyes fully open, the subject matter gestures towards these themes more explicitly. The grimacing Surrealist enters alongside das unheimliche German Expressionist in a procession of hideous vanities encircling Dallas’ gallery – a bathetic rather than glorious pageant where new subjects carry old regalia. An uncle dies in front of his Bently, a widowed aunt wears a memento mori ( an earring in the shape of a henged man), and claws at her perils in distraction. Magritte drew Arphrodite rising from the thigh of Zeus ( The Ocean, 1943): Woman as a phallus. Coombes gives you Man as a bobble – empty but decorative.

If we no longer look for an epistemological foundation in the heart, hand, brain or biography of Coombes, or an ideological programme in the signs he uses, then does a decadent morality descend like a dread God into his work? Hopefully. All this is tied to a quietly radical but opaque politics, minus the fanfare and didacticism of lesser artists who flounder, hen-toed, thinking saying something still means something.

When the subject and its signs are empty, then all that remains is style. The excessive emptiness of Coombes’ adopted style leaks meaning; the melancholic performance of the artist becomes effervescent. Style itself becomes aqueous and ethical.