Fans of overly ambitious mid-’90s genre schlock may be saddened to discover that Charlie Paul’s film Prophecy is, alas, not a new addition to that semi-beloved mini franchise in which Christopher Walken roams the Earth as the Archangel Gabriel. However, harking back to its cinematic namesake, this is a story which involves a clash of fantastical plains, God and The Devil converging in the mind, and then complex images being transmitted directly on to canvas with assiduously mixed oils.
In this informative and lightly abstract profile of the ruminative Glaswegian painter Peter Howson, Paul swerves the timeworn artist hagiography by exploring his subject through a carefully narrowed lens. His film depicts the creation of the titular canvas, charting a journey from crisp white rectangle the size of a billiard table, to intricate fresco of haunched bodies, deathly howls and grotesque detail.
Employing digitally-assisted time lapse photography, the film transmits a sense of how much elbow grease goes into a single work, as layers of colour build up, characters appear then disappear then appear again, and the shades oscillate between deep saturation to atmospheric subtlety. Howson says that his style redefines conventional notions of beauty, which is a fancy way of saying that what he does is extremely ugly. It’s hard to pinpoint all the various reference points, but it’s like Brueghel meets 2000AD – a fusion of the classical and the cartoonish.
Private buyers can’t get enough of him, and much of his work is purchased ahead of its initial exhibition and then hangs in chambers that are away from public eyes. Howson comes across as a self-depreciating and worldly fellow, pitching himself as a working class artisan more than a highfalutin artist. When he’s standing away from the canvas, he makes for a slightly shambling figure, chugging on ciggies and broadcasting his cravings for a cheeky Burger King.
But when he comes in close, it’s almost as if he’s entering a into a different body, as we are able to observe the jaw-dropping intricacy of his brush strokes. The concept of seeing a painting come alive – from the construction of the frame to its eventual sale – is nice in theory, yet the final ten minutes spent watching the final work being shipped to New York makes you yearn for the shots of paint drying.