A Painter’s Language
Paint is the language through which Liliane Tomasko explores what it means to inhabit the physical world and her own fluctuating thoughts and emotions. She paints what cannot be expressed in words; shifts of light and mood, the passing of time. Through her investigations of the domestic sphere she reveals the poetry to be found in the mundane. The tumble of sheets on an unmade bed, a discarded dress or pile of causally folded blankets offer as much eloquence on the subtleties of human relationships as do Morandi’s bottles. She asks us to consider objects not in terms of their simple function but in order to experience their deeper reality and metaphorical resonance. They become not just themselves but eloquent archetypes, the aesthetic in the ordinary, reverberating with the melancholy of remembrance and loss. What she evokes is their very essence, the ‘thingness’ of a thing; what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘inscape’. Out of the domestic she has created a personal cosmos, a ‘geometry of space’. The house, the home provides her imagery. For it’s in the home that we create a reflection of the world and through these meditations on the ordinary, as the French philosopher and phenomenologist, Gaston Bachelard suggests, we are able to understand the depths of daily life, ‘the domain of intimacy’. In the shadows of memory, experienced through the history of objects, we learn who we are and who we have been.
Liliane Tomasko has been looking at, photographing, and drawing fabric - dresses, piles of towels, linen and blankets - for fifteen years and developed a deep knowledge of the way cloth and material behave; how folds are generated by different densities and give a sense of weight. When she began as a painter she wanted to focus on the real, on things that could be observed casually from day to day. It was not the conventional still-life that interested her but the glimpse of an object in its ‘natural’ environment that would allow her to fuse her observations through both the remembered and the documented. Memories are not concrete. The more securely they are fixed in physical space, the more embodied they become. Around 2000 her work had titles such as Pillows, Beds, Yellow Dress and Brown Dress. These highly charged ‘feminine’ paintings, which caught the shifting changes of light moment by moment, read like meditations on the minutiae of the world. In their quiet stillness and subdued tonalities they evoked the dreamy interiors of Chardin and Vuillard.
Gradually she moved from painting recognisable objects to creating more blurred Images, playing with degrees of recognition and straddling the line between figuration and abstraction, the two and the three dimensional. This can be seen in the increasingly abstract works of stacked mattresses made in 2003/4. Here she experimented with moving the camera closer to the subject until what she was seeing through the lens was an image quite unrelated to what the eye could perceive. This was an attempt to see into the material, to catch a glimpse of the atoms that constructed the pile or stack she was observing. The visual implosion of the patterning that followed lead logically, she suggests, to her newer work.
Now there’s a new fluidity. The images appear more assertive, less static, more muscular and less concerned with reverie. They are explorations of what it means to inhabit the world through the act of painting, to be in the here and now. In this they are closer to de Kooning than to the meditations of Morandi. De Kooning has always had an impact on her work and, as soon as she allowed the line back onto the surface, her paintings started to veer off automatically into his sphere of painterly grammar. She loves, she says, “the earthy messiness, the controlled chaos, and the refusal in his paintings to let go of the world and its muddy atoms”. She does not consider De Kooning, or Gorky whose work she also finds fascinating, strictly abstract painters. In the case of her own new work the old motifs are still there, slightly transformed, perhaps, but still present.
Spending time with these canvases I am struck by how much she seems to be feeling her way in paint, as if rehearsing an argument or trying to form an idea or sentence. The visual world, particularly the world of painting, has, she says, a very interesting relationship to verbal language. “Both languages can make us travel, feel things and make sense of the world. They are essentially creative tools that allow us to apprehend, as well as shape the fabric or our reality. Painting has the ability to show us something all at once, and affect us emotionally in a very direct way. It can reveal something about our being and existence, without having to be descriptive. It makes a space for intuition and the use of our senses.”
The hovering melancholy and sense of time stretching and lengthening, so characteristic of her previous dark and monochromatic works with their potent play of light, has given way to a new vitality, a sense of internal movement. Instead of stasis there are leaps and swirls, advances and retractions. This, she explains, is “most likely connected to being a mother, witnessing the unfolding of life, and experiencing the dynamics of a small family.” But light, she insists, continues to play an important role. It’s just “not so focused and frozen in time, but more scattered and disjointed.”
These latest works, she maintains, are still full of ‘feminine’ energy. The domestic sphere remains the catalyst, only now it is much less obvious. A second glance reveals the underlying connection to folded fabric, with its implication of weight, body and the material of the world. Shapes fall, hang, lean and rest on the sinuous lines that appear to keep the more solid elements in place. Patches of blue, red, brown and yellow are held down by the assertion and force of the thick black squiggles, like muscles giving shape to a body. If the lines connected, the whole would be frozen and static, the patches of colour locked into being definite ‘objects’ of one kind or another. Their open-endedness suggests a kind of inclusivity, an invitation to the viewer to participate in the reading and interpretation of the work.
Elsewhere areas of colour appear to fall through the open webs to be gathered up in new positions. Everything is touching everything else in a sensual dance of hide-and-seek. These paintings illustrate a journey from harmony to dissonance, from silence to noise, from stillness to complexity. For her, colour is light remembered. Reds abut oranges that sit alongside flashes of blue. And although the body is, now, apparently absent, along with the traces of previous human presence - the stacks of blankets and sheets, the tousled bed – there is a certain recurring visceral pink that conjures skin and flesh. Despite their apparent abstraction, these works are still based on looking at and photographing unmade beds. The lined landscapes, the folds, swirls and peaks speak not only of rucked sheets and the body’s continuous movement during sleep, but also of insomnia, sexual activity and bodily fluids.
These are visceral not intellectual paintings. Where her earlier paintings were deliberately seductive, she has relinquished a traditional ‘feminine beauty’ for something more risky. The choice of colour is more challenging and the works, in her words, an “accumulation of unrelated bits and pieces, reminiscent of body parts, textiles and strange creatures, details of the sky or landscape – not unlike a dream, which is often fragmented but intensely visual and haptic, leaving nothing but a very strong sense of something that can be accessed more through feeling than verbal language. The colours are very atmospheric, the light they generate is a light of the world, of things in the world.”
There is the sense that everything is holding everything else in plac; that between the lines and individual areas there is a sympathetic and supportive relationship that is almost anthropomorphic. They prod and touch each other with a certain tenderness, maybe even with playful intent, gathering up the patches of colour and transforming them from just that, into something more actual and recognisable, which has body and presence. What is revealed is not only a relationship between sentient beings but also between all the stuff that makes up our physical world. These paintings appear to have been painted quickly, with a sense of urgency. In places the paint seems scrubbed onto the canvas with much less finesse than her previous old-masterly delicacy. In other places it is flat and blocky, less about observing the world than an investigation of thought and internal emotional states through the medium of paint.
In fact her working methods remain meticulous. The photographic image is transferred onto canvas in pencil as she works from a small printed image. Then the pencil drawing is re-drawn in paint and its legibility broken up by the use of different colours and lines of various thickness. This ‘skeleton’ is then left to dry for several days before working on larger areas. Sometimes further paint is applied deliberately and slowly, while other areas might be painted roughly and very fast as she plays with the thickness and thinness, and different speeds of application and surface density. There is a willingness to let things happen, for things to take their own course as they become integrated with the original matrix of the underlying drawing and idea. It can take several days to complete a painting. Areas are applied, then left to dry, repainted, changed or reaffirmed. It takes a lot of looking and a good deal of thought, as she watches the work evolve, to get a sense of what is coming together in front of her. Although she has created a number of large paintings, for which she uses ladders, the bodily relationship to her canvases remains important so that the mark-making never becomes too theoretical, removed or disconnected from the corporeal.
I ask whether there’s a difference between the paintings she makes in Europe and those worked on in America. She considers for a moment. There are, she suggests, subtle differences. The work she makes in the US is, perhaps, more daring. Since she and her husband, the painter Sean Scully, have made New York their permanent home she has discovered a largess and generosity of spirit in the culture. It’s there that she moved from the sombre atmospheric paintings created between 200-13, where the pattern of the fabrics became disconnected from the body of the material held in place by dark spaces, to the ‘inside out’ paintings of 2014. Here she has literally dug out the drawing and the mark-making that was buried in those more homogeneous, dense paintings and allowed the lines – the creases of the bed-sheets – to take on a life of their own.
Although a painter to her core Liliane Tomasko does choose to express herself through other media, through drawing, photography and sculpture. For the exhibition that opens this autumn in Miami at the Lowe Art Museum, she has included drawings, Polaroid photos and an inkjet printout of a photograph that served as the source for two quite different paintings. Also on show is a one-stop motion film of a stack of blankets, which perpetually makes and unmakes itself. She has always worked in close proximity with her husband, on occasions right next to him in the same studio. Before their young son Oisin was born they’d go for hikes together in Southwest England (when they were still living there), Ireland or in the German countryside and walk and talk for hours about art and painting. Her work has changed as her life has changed; taken her on a journey from the quiet meditative interiors akin to those of Chardin and Hammershoi, to the physical, more muscular expressionistic vocabulary of these new paintings. But there is no conclusion, no final denouement, no point of arrival; just a continued dedication to new ways of seeing and the language of paint.