The Abstract Paintings of Rachel Howard
Catalogue for the Exhibition at Gagosian
For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us.
Duino Elegies: Rilke
If we are what we read, then the titles of the books lying around Rachel Howard's studio give an insight into both her practice as a painter and her underlying philosophical concerns. Tossed among the paint cans and general studio clutter, when I visit, are copies of Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian, Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Joseph Albers' thoughts on the Interaction of Colour. Rachel Howard attended a Quaker school and has said that from the moment she first walked into church at the age of four she believed in God. The stories, the concerns and questions posed by religion - although she is now a proclaimed atheist - continue to run through her veins. She still sings hymns in the bath.
Fantasy Structure (Pink), 2006
A graduate of London's most prestigious art school, Goldsmith's, she worked for a while as Damien Hirst's assistant. This exposure to the hard commercialism of the art world appears to have given a toughness to her luscious abstract paintings that helps to avoid the 'pitfalls' of nostalgia, which inevitably threaten when flirting with the language of 'colour field' painting. Howard, though, is alert to the dangers, for whilst her paintings are often big and recall the heroic mysticism of Rothko, Barnett Newman or Morris Louis, she undercuts her own tendency to romanticism with a dose of the vernacular in her choice of medium, household paint.
Not that she is alone in her appropriation of this decorating material in the service of fine art, for this particular visual trope dates back to the 50s and others of her generation, such as Ian Davenport, Sarah Morris and Gary Hume, have also made it their own. But her canvases do not make the utopian claims of the modernists nor are they primarily concerned with structure and space as are Morris's bold geometric painting whose architectonic forms derive from urban environments, nor do they indulge in the laddish masking of emotion, such as we find in Hume's work, where the sealed surface never allows the viewer penetration of the image. Fashionable art theorising of the last 20 years has involved a sort of endless postmodern end-game where art - particularly painting - may appropriate from the past but where it has been powerless either to contribute to or continue the tradition. This has arguably led to an era of bleakness and complacency where the only response available has been one of endless irony which has transmuted, over the last two decades, from an alternative radicalism to conservatism and stasis. But Howard does not use the shiny, nail vanish quality of her paint either ironically or as a form of emotional armour-plating but rather as a means of creating tension between the pedestrian, the utilitarian and the essentially romantic. The mundane material she employs stands in antithesis to the emotional states she wishes to explore. This is spirituality for a postmodern world.
Fantasy Structure (Red), 2006
She first used household paint in 1995. Its fluidity was so gorgeous she felt challenged to conquer and control it. She lets the cans stand so that the paint separates. The top layer is used as the medium to manipulate the pigment, which is taken from the underneath. It is also used as a varnish to achieve the gloss finish. One of the main differences between her working method and that of the modernist colour field painters is her physical relationship to the work. There are no visible brushstrokes, no marks that suggest an intimacy with the movements of the artist's body, or any sinewy lines to recall the trace of her hand.
One of the weaknesses of much formalist art criticism is its focus upon the spatial structures of paintings, rather than upon the structure of colour relationships. Abstract painting involves an awareness not only of the formal use of space but also of the capacity to use colour to suggest a psychological 'narrative', to conjure, as do musical notes within a melody, an emotional state. Howard's paintings are built architecturally. The terms she uses are those of the builder: construction, reconstruction, building, layering and assembling. Gravity is her brush. Layers of paint accrue built by dripped pathways of paint. These create the scaffolding of her grids but it is colour that gives them their emotional nuance. She has a love/hate relationship with colour, knowing that certain painterly tricks can create an emotional response as easily as the swelling of violin strings. Although her work is undoubtedly beautiful she wants us to be pulled into her structures, to experience them as seductive yet also as places that are somehow difficult and forbidden. Her paintings represent the endless frustration of desire.
Visual Memory No Green, 2006
Red is one of her prime colours. The colour of birth, of violence and death, of sex and love, it pulsates. It is never static. In these new paintings she has used it to create a grid over a yellow ground which shimmers from behind like light pouring through a stained glass window. This distant glow represents something both seductive yet unobtainable. It suggests a deep, limitless space, a place of desire and longing, of possibility and promise from which we have been excluded behind the ensnaring architecture of the grid. The Platonic term that the French philosopher, Julia Kristeva, uses to describe such a locality is the chora, a word which loosely suggests a receptacle and the metaphorical equivalence to the maternal body. It is an image that might usefully be applied to the space that hovers behind the grid in Howard's paintings. Kristeva proposes that it is a pre-linguistic space, "where the subject is both generated and negated", broadly the locus of thought, language and creativity. For one educated within the Quaker tradition where the divine - sometimes described by Quakers as the inward light - is believed to reside within every human being, it is an appropriate conceit.
Visual Memory No Green, 2006
In a number of these new paintings there is a flat, inert panel of paint that takes up about a third of the canvas. This stands in contrast to the dynamic space that it abuts. It is, perhaps, not too far fetched to see this as functioning rather like a proscenium arch within a theatre. For beyond is a space of imagination, drama and dreams. Writing on Roland Barthes, the late Susan Sontag claimed that Barthes asserted the aim of literature (here one might substitute the word art) was 'to put "meaning" into the world but not "a meaning."' This description might usefully be applied to Howard's work. Smelted in the emotional forge of romanticism, modernism and religious sentiment she is too much a child of her times to be wholly seduced by art's utopian or didactic possibilities. A fan of Zola hers is a gritty view of reality. She sees beauty as being born out of everyday tragedy. Unusually an accomplished figurative as well as an abstract painter these current paintings stand at the opposite end of the emotional and philosophical spectrum to her recent series of female suicides. Her cruciform paintings and wonderful series of Colour C-Prints shown recently at Anne Faggionato, where she photographed the trellis supports of her studio windows to create dark crosses against the smudged opaline glass echoing both Malevich and Newman's Stations of the Cross, act as a formal and emotional link between the figurative and abstract work and lead us from the dark pathos of the suicides to the sublimity of her abstract paintings. These new works stand as affirmations of hope and possibility within the darkness and seem to imply that there are various kinds of beauty; sensual beauty as well as that of insight and truth. They give meaning to the experience of living in the world rather than providing explanations.
There are those who see all abstract art as merely mathematical or formalistic, while for others its agenda is fundamentally mystical. But Form as a language is insufficient. For where does the instinct to make a particular work come from and of what is Form a revelation? An emotion, a truth, a state? For the Abstract Expressionists there was a certainty that their painterly language revealed something of the cosmic mysteries of the universe. It was as if they were conduits bringing back meaning from the 'realm' beyond. But for a young artist living at the beginning of the 21st century such certainties are no longer possible. In this cynical postmodern age, where the end of everything from history to painting has become an abiding cultural refrain, it is very much harder to find a painterly vocabulary in which to expresses wonder and hope. Rachel Howard understands this dichotomy. This push and pull, this tension between the material and spiritual, the past and the present, surface and depth, is the very fibre of her work. In a world of gloss and surface her paintings mirror a desire for authenticity whilst acknowledging the complex dilemmas of the times in which we live. No contemporary artist can provide certainties or answers, indeed, perhaps all that they can do is ask insightful questions. For as the poet Robert Frost once wrote "though there is no fixed line between wrong and right, / There are roughly zones…
Rachel Howard New Paintings at Gagosian from 6 January to 3 February 2007
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2006
Images © Rachel Howard 2006. Courtesy of Gagosian