Sleeper Agent by Vilte Fuller
February 15th - March 18th 2023
81 boulevard Beaumarchais 75003 Paris
Vilte Fuller makes paintings that are dark and glamorous, replete with a surreal personal menagerie of pickled gherkins and Eastern European foodstuffs, post-Soviet architecture, silver screen vampires and militarised dolphins, porcelain ornaments, crystal glassware and nuclear sunsets, and much more besides. For her second solo show with superzoom, Fuller presents Sleeper Agent, a love-letter to the spy movie that combines her strange and apocalyptic landscapes with cliché tropes of the genre such as poisoned cocktails, gadget watches and fantastical forms of unknown espionage. Together with references to her Lithuanian heritage and contemporary political events, the exhibition portrays the future dystopia of an absurd yet strangely familiar world, offering us an intimate, eerie reflection on distorted and dramatic times.
Featuring a new body of large and small-scale paintings, Sleeper Agent is an arresting vision that speaks to the Fuller’s unique exploration of cultural identity and its relationship with digital media, memory and popular culture. Born in Klaipeda, Lithuania and raised in rural England, Fuller has long been captivated by spy films and their depiction of glamorous, identity-shifting operatives that — in classic Hollywood agitation— subvert the fraught political line between Western and Soviet powers, often flirting with nuclear catastrophe, employing space-age technology and seducing a gorgeous, aloof Slavic beauty along the way; a trope well-worn by James Bond’s unending sexual proclivity for female Soviet defectors such as KGB Major Anna Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), played by American former Playboy model Barbara Bach, and reiterated in the recent Marvel reboot of Black Widow featuring Scarlett Johansson as a busty and biotechnologically enhanced super-spy from Russia.
Reflecting the visual chaos and consumerism of the internet age, Fuller reworks tropes of Cold War espionage sourced from Reddit, Pinterest and YouTube, manipulating them in Photoshop alongside images from family archives, blockbuster cinema and her own imagination. Together their composition echoes the cut-and-paste graphics of early HTML web design to create an offbeat contemporary surrealism — an effect made all the more intimate by Fuller’s signature canvases, stitched together riotously using fragments of unprimed canvas. It is a process conceived by Fuller due to a lack of access to materials over the COVID-19 lockdown and continued for its tactile and disruptive energy; it is paired here with a mottled palette that draws heavily on the use of chromium oxide green, an opaque and moss-like pigment used as the principal ingredient for the first forms of military camouflage and a near-identical shade used for former KGB prison walls in Vilnius.
For Sleeper Agent, Fuller combines her emphasis on touch and materiality with a shadowy cast of characters that variously morph, bend and dilute into her chosen thematic paraphernalia, from traditional Lomonosov porcelain figures to the lurid and suspicious-looking contents of martini cocktail glasses. It is at times a weird and humorous world, demonstrating Fuller’s typically light-hearted and irreverent approach to subject matter. At the same time the exhibition makes overtures to a number of today’s real and most pressing threats, such as the risk of nuclear catastrophe, employed so often in spy films as nothing more than a cheap dramatic device, but in reality no stranger to Eastern Europeans since the tragedy of Chernobyl and Vladimir Putin’s escalatory rhetoric during the ongoing war in Ukraine. Even Fuller’s cutest motifs, such as group of harmless galloping dolphins, tell us a double-edged story, alluding to those employed by Russia for surveillance to protect Black Sea naval bases.
One often has the feeling with Fuller’s work that something bad is waiting to happen: that someone or something is listening in that shouldn’t be. The works in Sleeper Agent are fantastical and emphatic vignettes of this uncomfortable world. They employ a surreal ensemble of tropes and characters that allude to and deconstruct staid narratives of big-picture spy films, presenting us with an increasingly fractured visual and political landscape filled with clandestine surveillance, airbrushed profiles and problematic typecasts. They are also a means by which the artist explores their own identity and cultural heritage, and the ways this has been homogenised and represented in Western popular culture. In the end, Sleeper Agent as an exhibition is facetious, liberatory and fun, stern, critical and questioning, as is always the case with Fuller’s idiosyncratic work and complex surrounding world of ideas.
Words by Charlie Mills