Art Catalogues

David Oates
Paintings

The assumption of being an individual is our greatest limitation
Pir Vilayat Khan (Sufi teacher)

In a world where high visibility, pastiche and irony are the hallmarks of so many contemporary artists, there is something invigorating about the quiet minimalism and lack of ego in David Oates’ approach. All too often, in our consumer society, life and art present themselves as an endless accumulation of meaningless spectacles that lack a unifying narrative. In the layered and slippery space of postmodernism so much lacks coherence.

In contrast, David Oates’ concerns are serious and focused, both painterly and philosophical. There is a potent charge to his layered surfaces, which give a sense of illusionistic, inchoate space that is physical as well as metaphysical. Time and the cosmos are evoked, as are questions of our place within the matrix of the universe. The paintings in the Kiss series are made on bare, sized canvas to emphasise their physicality and allusion to industrial mass-production. Not only are a series of eclipses implied but also a relationship to the body, in the semblance of a spine and the emotive title. The dark red/grey Kiss 8 is an exception to the general run of this group, being made painstakingly from thinly built layers of glazed paint.

In other works, such as the Vampire series, carefully executed circular holes penetrate the canvas, reminding us of the literal reality of the painting’s surface, whilst also calling to mind the illusion of skin or a membrane, of the difference between inside and outside. What is entered through these cut-outs is another dimension, a void; an implicitly transformative space. The traces of paint left on the edges of the canvas attest to the history of the works’ making.

A line or slash appears to hover vertically on the canvas in the Janus series. Though often barely perceptible, the mark seems to float on the surface, whilst also functioning as an aperture into a different realm, similar to Barnett Newman’s zips or Lucio Fontana’s slashes.

History has always been important to David Oates. In the 1980s he created a series of figurative works entitled Prototypes, images of a generic Everyman from the First World War that carried the weight of our collectively fading memory of those catastrophic events. Metaphors of archaeology permeate his spare, lyrical paintings and drawings. In what is covered up and forgotten, along with what is half-remembered and tentatively revealed, he creates a series of poetic palimpsests.

Sue Hubbard September 2019

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Art Catalogues

Jeffrey Daniels
Traces of Occupation

“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.”
Giacometti

As Giacometti suggests, art creates a parallel universe, one that mirrors reality obliquely, rather than reflecting it directly. The serious artist makes art to discover what he or she does not quite know but somehow senses. He digs into the dark recesses of the imagination hoping to uncover what is lurking there hidden: the tangled matrix of his own emotions, the substrata of a city, the remnants of another civilisation. At its best art is a palimpsest, a many layered thing that can be enjoyed briefly as a sensual visual experience but is able, when the layers are cleared away, to provide something much deeper. It can be understood as a series of Chinese boxes that, as they are opened, interlink the present with memory, history and the passage of time. Or it can be seen as a process of mapping that, rather than charting specific locations, gives a structure to our dreams and imaginings. As suggested by Freud’s theory of the uncanny, art can reveal things that are at one and the same time both familiar, yet strange. Things which seem ordinary but provoke an aura of mystery, even anxiety.

The use of the myth of Eurydice is a clue to Jeffrey Dennis’s preoccupations. In the painting of the same name a woman can be seen, embedded in the abstract aerated patterning, descending a flight of steps and crossing a bridge. Dennis takes as his starting point the stuff of the every day. A familiar looking city street, an ordinary room. In Outside Agencies, we see, amid the abstract bubble-wrap surface of the canvas, the suggestion
of a cracked pavement. There’s also a realistic section of floor boards and another hyper-real ‘window’ in which a man can be seen entering a tunnel or an enclosed room through a wooden door. Both door and floor boards imply hidden worlds, those below and beyond the familiar. The door might lead, like that into Narnia, to another realm where time follows different rules in a place of dreams. And who knows what treasures might lurk beneath those floor boards? For as Gaston Bachelard writes in his classic work The Poetics of Space: “The house, even more than the landscape, is a psychic state, and even when reproduced as it appears from the outside, it bespeaks intimacy.”

In Traces of Occupation the canvas is filled with bits of wire and industrial tubing. If you live in London you will frequently see holes dug in the street by gas or telephone companies in order to lay pipes or fibre optic cables. Their muddy depths reveal intestinal wires and pipes trailing over crumbling Victorian architraves, knots of underground connective systems that hold the city together and mimic the neural pathways of the brain. Dennis’s paintings imply that similar synapses are paramount to our individual personalities and creativity, that they define who we are. In a small aperture on the right of the painting a woman stands on a stool. She appears to be an artist painting, highlighting the connection between thinking, making and existential investigation.

Figures appear on the edges of Jeffrey Dennis’s canvases like actors in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In the Italian’s play their role is to demonstrate the artifice of writing, to illustrate the illusion of theatre. Here they establish something similar, reminding us that painting is an artificial construct. Both inside and outside of the work they are, at one and same time, illusionary and real, subjects and objects.

In that sense Dennis is a postmodernist. There is no hierarchy to his spaces.. Each area and element of his picture space is given equal weight. Yet in a world of fracture and cultural incoherence, of severance and loss, his implicit narratives, devoid of any preachy didacticism, reflect back to us the frailties of our contemporary lives.

When the ‘death of painting’ is still dragged out and regularly presented as a tired mantra, Dennis shows how the form can be endlessly reinvented to deal with current issues such as the complexity and disorientation of urban space, and the way

in which public transport and digital systems impact on our sensibilities, as well as being a vehicle for deeper investigations into the psyche. He also engages in a discussion about the materiality of paint, one that touches on questions as to when a painting is not a painting but a sculpture. Constantly revivified by an awareness of art history, coupled with influences from film, TV and everyday metropolitan life, he is not afraid of narrative, which he uses in his own unique way to explore the microcosm within the macrocosm and, by so doing, create his own unique universe.

London, April 2019

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Art Catalogues

Peter Joyce
Digging Deep

Dimpsey
acrylic on wood panel
40.5 x 44cm

It’s only about two hours from London to Peter Joyce’s home near Bouin in the marshlands of La Vendée, but it might be another world. Joyce first came to this region of Pays de la Loire on holiday and fell in love. Born in Dorset, and still with a house there he, and his wife Jo, moved permanently to this remote location more than a decade ago, seeking a place where he could work without interruption, as well as be close to nature. Though, initially finding it rather lonely and intimidating, Jo took a bit of persuading to make it their full time home.

As we drive from Nantes airport, the landscape becomes more and more deserted. Once covered by sea, the area is flat and open with huge vistas and expansive skies. There are few trees and even fewer people. You can drive for miles without seeing a living soul. Just the occasional farmer or fisherman, an odd cyclist or birdwatcher. The ever-changing light rolls in from the Atlantic, dramatic and mercurial. With its boundless horizons, it’s a mysterious and existential place. A land time forgot.

And then there’s the abundant wild life. I saw a couple of white egrets, a heron and a short-eared owl in the few days I was there. But I might also have seen kites and spoonbills or even storks at the right time of year. The extensive wetlands provide a pit stop for spring and autumn migrant birds travelling to and from Africa, and a winter quarter for many other species. Huge flocks of greylag and brent geese, black-tailed godwits and dunlin swirl in their hundreds of thousands between their high tide roosts and the food-rich mud- flats. If you’re lucky you might catch sight of a brown hare leaping through the fields. Red deer and roe deer, as well as wild boar, are common. Beaver-like coypu can be glimpsed swimming in the creeks and waterways. While, in summer, asp vipers, the regions only venomous snake, bask on sunny banks.

It was the Romans who first built the dykes here, some 2000 years ago, and created the salt marshes. Benedictine monks then extended the network of pits and canals and turned the local production of sea salt into a thriving industry. The area remained the largest salt producer in Europe until the 18th century. With the decline in salt production the salt marshes were reclaimed for agricultural use. As some areas were below sea level, a network of canals (étiers) and locks were put in place to send the salty water back out towards the sea and replace it with rain water. Now there are both salt water and fresh water marshes. A lattice of creeks and inlets is home to small boats, half-rotted wooden slipways and Chinese-style counterbalanced fishing nets. But mostly the land is left to its own devices, the rough, unkempt fields dotted with isolated cows and horses like children’s farmyard toys.

So what has all this got to do with painting? Well everywhere you look there are sites to assault the eye of the visually sensitive. If you were to go up in a small biplane – as the Cornish landscape painter Peter Lanyon might have chosen to do – you’d discover an area patchworked with pools and salt pans. The colours are muted – soft greens and browns – with the occasional flash of blue. Wooden posts, bleached by the wind and tides, cast fishbone-shadows on the wet sands. Pink and blue bailer twine flaps on barbed wire fences, suggesting scribbles of bright paint set against the green turf. Telegraph poles (soon to be placed underground) provide vertical reference points – like thin pencil lines – against the flat horizon. While rusted mesh netting, left by oyster catchers, offers the visual grammar for a potential abstract painting. This is a landscape that feeds the aesthetic imagination. One well suited to the sensibilities of an abstract painter and a dedicated naturalist.

Peter and Jo’s house is full of objects lovingly collected at brocante sales and on their walks. There’s a zen-like precision to their displays of found objects, a minimalist respect for artefacts carefully set in space. Whilst their garden is home to a clutch of pet hens and their accompanying cockerels, as well as an anarchic gaggle of guinea fowl with whom Peter seems to have a uniquely special bond. But it’s the studio, an old converted oyster shed, surrounded by disused basins where the molluscs were grown when brought up from the sea, that is the powerhouse. Empty for six years, it’s here that Jo now makes Peter’s frames in one half of the building, while he paints in the other.

Before going to France I’d not met Peter Joyce. From his work I’d expected someone older, not a man in his 50s. It’s as if by choosing to live in this forgotten region that he’s made a deliberate decision to turn his back on the razzmatazz of the urban artworld with its fashionable postmodern discourses and place himself squarely in the company of British Modern painters of an earlier generation, many of whom took themselves off to the, then, remote St. Ives looking for similar things to Peter: untamed landscape, peace to work and intense, changing light. Like Lanyon and Patrick Heron, Joyce alludes to both real and invented landscapes, bringing to his work a subtle sense of place and the sort of understanding that can only be achieved through total immersion and habitual looking.

Walking round his studio we discuss how he begins a painting. Although he takes copious photographs he never translates these literally. Rather they form part of a mental reference library. He starts by laying marks and lines of paint on bare canvas. “Once you put two colours down in a painterly space, one stands in front of the other and you have a tension”, he explains. “Then I go through three weeks of nonsense while I try to avoid being seduced by those first marks. Often I hang large works on the bedroom wall – it’s the only wall big enough – and live with them for a few weeks while trying to feel what direction they should take. It’s then that I discover a point of departure and can dive back in. At the end of each day I photograph what I’ve done to chart a work’s process”.

Joyce is a painter of landscapes but they’re landscapes of the imagination, arrived at through perpetual looking, rather than direct representations of the actual world. The painter to whom he is closest is Prunella Clough. Her subtle translations of the everyday – the detritus and incidentals caught out of the corner of the eye – are mirrored in Joyce’s work. Like hers, his colours are muted and rooted in nature. Shades and tones that might be seen on his frequent walks. The silvery greens of lichen on a gate. The ochre or verdigris of a rusty fence. Never simply decorative, they could be pigments dug straight from the earth. This chthonic connection explains his passion for collecting ceramics, themselves made from that most basic of elements, clay. He and Jo have a fine collection.

Looking was a habit formed early in his Dorset childhood. He describes it as something of an Enid Blyton existence, one where he spent a lot of time alone, making maps, looking at butterflies and insects. Later, at art school in Bournemouth, he moved from the design studios to study painting. It was, he says, as if someone had turned on a light. His first paintings were based on tight patterned grids. He didn’t, he admits, at the time, even know the significance of the grid within modernist painting. It simply allowed him a way to exert control over the canvas, provided a system he could then subvert with more expressive painting. He has, he says, never done the copying thing. But being expressive didn’t come naturally from a graphic design background. Like a child he had to counter the feeling that he needed to be neat, that he shouldn’t ‘go over the edges’. Then he discovered the American Abstract Expressionists and found the ambition and scale of their work jaw-dropping, though he never felt he had to emulate them. His own sensibility is more akin to painters such as Lanyon, Hilton and Heron. And his light is essentially northern, his colours English. There’s an air of nostalgia about his work. Something of the Festival of Britain and the wonderful Shell Guides that started in June 1934 with Betjeman’s Cornwall, and continued until 1984. His colours are reminiscent of those to be found in early John Pipers or Paul Nash. Eric Ravillious is another artist who comes to mind. Yet his work is never a pastiche, rather a revisiting and a reinvention.

The process of mapping, first explored as a young boy, is suggested in a number of Joyce’s adult paintings. It’s both a psychological and metaphorical device, as well as a way of attempting to describe the experience of being in the actual, physical landscape. Being a cartographer is to be an explorer in the unknown land of the creative imagination. In the final decade of the nineteenth century Freud articulated the first ideas about the unconscious using words derived from topos (place), implying a sense both of location and investigation. Like Freud, Joyce has an interest in archaeology. The process of digging deep though ancient layers, of uncovering what is hidden, implies the search for new ways of seeing. Joyce’s paintings are about quiet discoveries. A painting such as Traverse 2018, with its drawn white lines suggests a memory of the White Horse of Uffington or other ancient white horses incised into the English landscape. Many of his paintings feel as though they are searching for some atavistic historical essence.

In Deep 2018, a blue ribbon-like line connects ‘vessels’ or ‘baskets’ that might have been suggested by the many fishing nets seen locally in the small harbours and creeks when Joyce is out on his daily walks. There’s the sense of something being plunged into hidden depths, yet also of being caught and contained. While in Dimpsey 2018 (a vernacular word from the southwest of England meaning dusk) there’s an implied division between two states: the conscious and unconscious mind, emotion and reason, dark and light, even land and water. These are not landscapes that you can actually inhabit or visit but places discovered from trawling through a poetic imagination. In Spoor 2018 the edge of the collaged piece of hessian implies a division between wet and dry as we look down through the veils of paint.

In Les Prés 2018, a jut of what might be land is seen from above. Triangular and rectangular shapes overlap implying the history of alluvial layers and possible archaeological sites; long barrows hidden beneath fields. The work reveals both what we know about a landscape and what we don’t know. What is hidden. Built up in layers and veils of colour it also maps the history of the painting’s making. While Wind Whistle 2018 has many of the similar aerial qualities to Les Prés, its wedge-shaped image suggests an artefact found in some ancient burial mound: a bone, or stone-age implement.

In Red Streamers 2018 with its layers of transparent, scraped back paint, and Grey Lines 2018 there’s a feeling of looking down from above (a quality that pays tribute to Peter Lanyon) into pools of water, of seeing tones and shapes that shift and blur with the current’s movement. Nothing feels static. There’s a sense that what we’re looking at is fluid, constantly changing. Not so much a fixed statement but a momentary glimpse of something in flux. As Heraclitus said, when exploring ideas of time: it’s not possible to step into the same river twice. Joyce’s paintings capture a moment. A flash of sunlight on water, the wind rippling across the surface of a pond, grass swaying in the sand dunes. Moments that are fleeting, then gone.

In other paintings it’s not so much physical locations or topographies that have inspired Joyce but times of day, changes in light and, what the poet Wordsworth called, “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. In Thicket, 2018, the mood is sombre, like the night closing in. The swirling veil of darkness that appears to be covering the touches of yellow speaks of those twin points in the life of any painter or writer, doubt and depression. While Blue Flash, 2018 suggests not only a dramatic streak of lightening across a wide sky but a burst of emotional energy like a clash of cymbals or roll of drums. It is in direct counterpoint to the stillness and introversion of Thicket, the buoyant side of creativity. Never static there’s a constant sense of movement in these works. Things shift and change like the weather in this open landscape. Looking at this series of paintings is like listening to the flow of a piece of music with its diminuendos and crescendos, its moments of stillness and electric dynamism.

There’s a nostalgia to these paintings but it’s never mawkish or sentimental. Joyce’s acute observation and eye for detail are the stuff of Proustian memories. The stone, the bit of wire, the wooden post act as catalysts into his creative imagination. He admits he would rather go back into the past than forward into the future. That when making a painting he discovers his place in the natural world, in the historic scheme of things. It’s often only after a work is finished that he realises what it is about.

He works tremendously hard. Sometimes he’ll start on a raw canvas. Other times on a gesso ground. Colour is applied randomly and the paint is always acrylic. If the marks become too representational he’ll pull them back and scrape them down. He likes to work on different scales so that he’s not repeating himself. The difference in the size of a canvas forces change, allows him to resist the recurrence of particular motifs. He is, he insists, not painting for anyone but himself, to resolve visual problems and needs to shut out the world in order to discover the paintings he wants to make. Nothing is pre-planned or preconceived.

I ask what he reads and he admits he never reads novels but rather art catalogues, stuff on wildlife and, more recently, books on architecture, a growing interest. He may or may not, he says, listen to music whilst working. Often alternative difficult stuff that breaks accepted formats.

Like the great poet of observation, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Joyce looks for the essential essence of things. What Hopkins called ‘inscape’. As the poet-priest wrote in his great poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells…

The routine that Peter Joyce has created in these forgotten marshlands of France attempts to do just that. It is a singular, almost monastic existence, in a hectic, frenzied world. One of painting, walking, looking and just being. He and Jo have simplified life down to its essential components. The uniqueness of the physical world – both in its visual appearance and it’s inner essence – are the enduring subjects of Peter’s work. The light and the dark. History and the transitory moment. The past and now.

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Art Catalogues

Strange and Familiar
Britain as Revealed by International Photographers

“We are homesick most for the places we have never known.”
― Carson McCullers

It is a truth pretty much universally acknowledged that the past is another country. But that this country, this green and pleasant land should be seen as ‘other’, experienced through ‘foreign’ eyes, provides an interesting perspective on our identity.

The power of the photograph is that it allows us to see ourselves as others see us. My goodness did I really look like that, wear those glasses, have that hair style? Don’t I look young/slim/naïve? Did we honestly behave like that? How odd. I had quite forgotten until now…

Curated by the British photographer Martin Parr – best known for his satirical, yet affectionate technicolour images of the British enjoying their leisure in tacky seaside resorts – Strange and Familiar at the Barbican Gallery, London, includes the work of twenty-three international photographers from the 1930s onwards who have responded to the social structures, clichés and cultural changes within this sceptred isle. There’s street photography, portraiture, along with architectural studies by a number of celebrated modernist photographers that reveal the diversity within this small island from the Outer Hebrides to Northern Ireland, from Welsh coal mining communities in their death throes, to boys at Eton. It also brings together an extensive photobook section of many rare and out-of-print publications.

At a time when the very notion of Great Britain is in danger of dissolution, as Scotland and Wales continue to murmur about becoming independent nations and England suffers an identity crisis while it tries to decide whether or not to leave Europe, these images hold up a mirror to reveal how others see us: both as an odd, class-ridden post-imperial little island floating in the north sea, and as a modern, culturally diverse society.

“England”, wrote George Orwell in 1946, “resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”

But as I arrive at the Barbican it’s a sunny day and people are sitting by the waterfront chatting and drinking wine or working on their laptops sipping a latte. The contrast between this well-healed vision of contemporary London and Orwell’s Britain of the 40s is enormous. Then the country was poor, dark and cheerless, with a culture of make-do-and-mend and know-your-place. The exhibition starts with Edith Tudor-Hart’s images of the East End, along with those of the deprived housing in Tyneside. A black and white photograph of Gee Street, Finsbury, London, taken in 1936, shows two women – a mother and grandmother? –  crammed with 6 children into the backyard of a slum dwelling. Shot from above they seem imprisoned in the tiny space. A line of tattered washing flaps overhead and a battered tin bath hangs on the soot-streaked wall. The place is mean, dirty and probably damp. Child poverty, unemployment and the sort of deprivation we now associate with the Third World marked the interwar years in these islands. So it’s hardly surprising that children got sick. A 1935 black and white photograph shows toddlers – naked except for goggles, socks and sandals – arms outstretched to receive ultraviolet light treatment at the South London Hospital for Women and Children. This vision of underprivilege is in marked contrast to that of an aristocratic woman in a long Edwardian skirt and checked mackintosh sitting on a bench in Hyde Park two years later.

The exhibition takes us on a journey through a Britain that, in the 1930s, was closer to the Victorian smog-filled world of Dickens than to anything we might recognise now, through the key historic events of the 20thcentury from King George VI’s 1937 coronation, to the political protest that erupted in the 1960s and marked the beginning of the sweeping cultural changes in attitudes to sex, class, drugs and music, up to the bland, post-industrial landscapes of the present day.

For many of these international photographers the unfamiliarity of Britain allowed their imaginations free reign. Born in Switzerland in 1926 Robert Frank contrasted the world of the city gent in his ubiquitous bowler hat, strolling down the street with his rolled newspaper, cane and sense of entitlement, with the black faces of Welsh miners queuing against a desolate backdrop for their wages. A black and white photo, taken in 1952-3, shows a hearse in a misty London street, which is completely empty apart form a small skipping girl, a road sweeper and a distant coal lorry. This was a world still recovering from the traumas of war.

Shinro Ohtake arrived here his 20s knowing neither the language nor any people. His coolly observed photographs taken in the 1970s – with their Lyons Maid Ice Cream booths, street markets and suburban streets – read like a stream of consciousness, a diary on British life. The ‘outsider’ status of these photographers allowed them to observe the nuanced layers of the social environments in which they found themselves. Though the London Sergio Larrain encountered during the winter of 1958-9 was already showing marked differences to the one observed by Robert Frank. Something of a flâneaur, Larrain roamed the underground and travelled on the top of buses capturing the nascent energy of the post-war recovery.

But it is essentially class, privilege and poverty that are the dominant themes of the eighty years which make up the history of this exhibition. The first real cracks appear in the rigid hierarchy during the 1960s. Garry Winograd captures the mood of revolt and sexual energy of the Swinging ‘60s: the young women with flowing hair, the young men dressed as Edwardian mods or wearing denim beneath bushes of unruly hair, carrying the revolutionary newspaper The Black Dwarf.

Sometime in the early 1950s, the radical American photographer, Paul Strand, heard a radio programme about the traditional songs of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides and decided to spend three months there, drawn to the islands simple, self-sufficient life that stood in contrast to the industrial re-development on the mainland. The result was a series of remarkable portraits that John Berger noted possessed ‘an infallible eye for the quintessential’.  

In 1977 the Queen visited Belfast as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations. The tribal clashes and protests that surrounded her visit were caught by Aki Okamaru, while the French Magnum photographer, Raymond Depardon, commissioned by The Sunday Times to record images of Glasgow in the 1980s, reveals the grey poverty of the Gorbals interrupted only by a splash of colour from a red car parked outside a tenement building or a small girl’s pink dress.

Concluding the exhibition is a series  from the Dutch conceptual photographer Hans Eijekelboom that explores the nature of identity by illustrating the ubiquitous fashion choices of those in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre. But it’s The New York photographer Bruce Gilden’s tightly cropped, stark colour photographs where he has focused his unrelenting lens on the ‘invisible people’ of Dudley, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton – places that have witnessed decades of industrial decline – that throw a harsh light on the ‘under dogs’ of contemporary Britain. His aging, peroxide blonde from Essex, her lashes laden with black mascara, the toothless, red-veined face of Peter from the Midlands and the blotchy asexual portrait of a middle aged woman having a perm in a West Bromwich Beauty Parlour are reminiscent of the dark dysfunctional imagery of the Ukraine by Boris Mikhailov. Recorded without sentimentality or comment, Gilden presents those excluded from the growing prosperity of British life and from which many might be inclined to turn away.

Images:
Gee Street, Finsbury, London ca. 1936
© Edith Tudor-Hart National Galleries of Scotland

Coronation of King George VI, Trafalgar Square, London
12th May 1937
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum photos

Street on the day after the Battle of the Bogside
Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, august 1969
© Akihiko Okamura courtesy of his estate, Japan

Art Catalogues

Shirazeh Houshiary
Between Text and Painted Skin

“…more than other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. it sets at a distance, maintains the distance. in our culture, the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, hearing, has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations…the moment dominates the look dominates, the body loses its materiality”
Luce Irigaray

What Freud says about the unconscious sounds like science but in fact it is just a means of representation.
Ludwig Wittgenstein – 1946

Before entering Shirazeh Houshiary’s brilliant white studio in West London, on the upper floor of the building designed by her architect husband, she asks me to take off my shoes. I feel as if I’m entering a sacred space – a mosque, a temple or a Japanese tearoom – which, of course, in a way, I am. For the artist’s studio is not only a workshop but a domain for dreaming. A womb, a primal space where she can return, through a form of play, to a pre-linguistic state. I have the impression that I’m crossing a threshold into an inner sanctum, moving from the everyday into the realm of the creative unconscious. “When experiencing a work of art”, wrote Juhani Pallasmaa: in his wonderful little book, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, “a curious exchange takes place; the work projects its aura, and we project our own emotions and precepts on the work. The melancholy in Michelangelo’s architecture is fundamentally the viewer’s sense of his/her own melancholy enticed by the authority of the work. Enigmatically, we encounter ourselves in the work.”  And because this is so, because the self can only ever be partially be found in a work of art, there is always a feeling of melancholy and loss that hangs over the object. An awareness that the artist has striven towards, yet has never quite reached, a state of perfection.

A copy of The Eyes of the Skin is sitting on Shirazeh Houshiary’s desk. As we talk it becomes apparent that, unusually for a visual artist she, like Pallasmaa, values the primacy of the Word over that of the Image. For as Gaston Bachelard wrote in his essay: The Dialectics of Outside and Inside: “Sight says too many things at one time. Being does not see itself. Perhaps it listens to itself. It does not stand out, it is not bordered by nothingness; one is never sure of finding it, or of finding it solid, when one approaches a centre of being.”

For this exhibition Houshiary has selected a single word from five different languages: Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, Mandarin and Latin, as the central heart-beat around which to build her new series: The River is Within Us. Each single word is akin to a meditation, a breath. Something inchoate that we are hardly able to name. Yet, as she points out, the need to communicate and pass on insights and acquired knowledge has compelled us, from pre-history, to carve texts on stone tablets and ink hieroglyphs onto sheets of papyrus. Language is what connects us to civilisation and to the wider universe. We speak, therefore we are. It defines us as sentient, imaginative beings. As the French philosopher, Julia Kristeva, suggests: “in the history of signifying systems…of the arts, religions, and rites, there emerge…fragmentary phenomena which have been kept in the background… [that] point to the very process of significance. Magic, shamanism, esotericism, the carnival and ‘incomprehensible’ poetry [and one might add art] all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses.” The ‘text’, she suggests, is where we find “the sum of unconsciousness”. “What we call significance, then,” she goes on to say, “is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of drives towards and through language.” It is this understanding of the fracture and gradual disintegration of the text that enables Houshiary to fuse ideas and feelings within the painterly language of abstraction. That the veil is a universal metaphor for mourning, which she began to incorporate into her work after the death of her father, whom she had left in Iran when she made her life in England, is hardly surprising. Just as it is an important metaphor for the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  For the veil not only conceals but is fluid and permeable. As Helen Cixous writes: the female “eye is not that of the law but of the pupil (pupille), which sees itself from all sides…. He is She. She is He”. Houshiary invites the viewer to look back through her veiled surfaces, through the shroud of artistic consciousness, into the fissures and openings of the painted body.

And it is through touch, she believes, that we arrive at our understanding of the world, rather than through sight which, since the Renaissance, has been privileged as the primary sense. Her work is Romantic in that it connects us through its permeable membrane to the universal. We drown in her surfaces much as we do in Wordsworth’s landscapes described in the Prelude or Caspar David Friedrich’s   majestic mountain top vistas. “Nothing exists except through the body”, she says, “Nothing exists without you being present.” Touch is immediate and tactile. While information acquired through the eye is detached, experienced at a remove. Skin is the membrane that separates us from the world. The boundary between the self and other, the division between the centrality of the ego and all that is not the self. Inside and out. In her writing on the French philosopher, Lucie Irigaray, Anne-Emmanuelle Berger notes that Irigaray talks in her text Speculum “of the body’s layers and folds – skin, placenta, lips – that are neither closed nor opened, neither hidden nor revealed, neither external nor internal”. The implication is that touch is boundless, unrestricted. Sight, it might, then, be argued, is ‘masculine’ in that focuses. It belongs to analysis and perception, to thought and reason, to empirical evidence and the Enlightenment. The perspectival vanishing point was, after all, one of the great discoveries of the Renaissance. While Newton understood the concept of gravity because he saw the apple fall to the ground. To experience the world through touch could, in contrast, be seen as ‘feminine’. Our earliest sensual memories are of the womb, the breast, the caressing hand. Such experiences are not ‘focused’ but all embracing, enveloping. Felt rather than apprehended. In today’s art world dominated by the conceptual, Houshiary is keen to re-establish emotional connection with the art object, to awaken human feeling and gut response. Great art is a matrix of ideas and emotions, which we recognise largely through the body. .As Barthes suggests, it is like a wound, a sudden piercing of flesh, which he calls the ‘punctum’. A moment of psychic recognition that hits us in the solar plexus.

Using especially handmade paper created by the Singapore Tyler Institute, Houshiary has made layered ‘tablets’ from 2 or 3 sheets to form a ‘skin’ or ‘membrane’ onto which she has poured pure pigment mixed only with water. Like sediment deposited from an endlessly flowing river, the gritty pigment leaves alluvial layers on the paper’s surface, traces of the process of pouring that veil individual words, which disappear into immateriality. Each single ideogram is embedded like a lost memory or an archaeological artefact in these painterly palimpsests. The application of pure colour mirrors both emotional states and nationalities: blue for Arabic, which conjures desert skies or water trickling in an oasis and feelings of infinity. Red for Mandarin. For in China red is the colour of death.

We think of our lives as stories, threads that are interwoven into the fabric of memory, history, art and texts. The word “text” relates to the words “texture” and “textile”, which can be traced back to “texo” – “to weave”, referring to the way words and sentences are “woven” together. So we speak of “weaving” a tale or “spinning a yarn.” The Greek word for paper originally referred to writing sheets made from the pith and stem of the papyrus, a plant native to Egypt. “Write” first meant to scratch with a pointed instrument. “Letter”, as in the signs of the alphabet, is close to the Latin word “linere”, “to smear”. If you “obliterate” something, you wipe out what has been written. Houshiary’s work takes on the quality of a screen on which something potent, even sacred, is written. But like the name of God, the word is unknowable, veiled and almost indecipherable. The layers of paper and pigment echo the strata of the unconscious and the complex processes of dreaming. Text is a fabric, a weave of different experiences brought to the viewer/reader by the artist/writer. Traditionally women’s work, weaving and textiles embody the emotional within the corporeal. Embedded in the surface of the weave/text/paint is a wide ranging network of associations that are felt rather than intellectually understood, analysed or comprehended. Emotions are suggested rather than revealed. Words, like sacred artefacts, pulsate through the layers of pigment in Houshiary’s paintings. As with abstract motifs within the Islamic tradition they deny the pictorial yet resonate with feeling.  These veils create metaphysical oppositions between the visible and invisible, between what is hidden and what is revealed. We stand in front of her works and become lost in their luminous layers, like a child becomes enfolded in the mother’s body or the lover in their partner’s touch, absorbed by the unspoken web of emotion, the polyphony of senses.

Each of these works employs similar dimensions to ancient stone tablets found in the British Museum. Placed in Perspex boxes and subtly lit from behind, the surfaces glow like skin, so the passing of time, the accretions of history and entropy are all implied in these poetic paper works. Their radiance also suggests not only the divine light of European religious art, but the ambient light of the computer screen, the ubiquitous means of communication in the modern world. “In the beginning was the word…” writ by man’s hand. Like the stone carver’s tablet Houshiary’s works are scaled to human dimensions, to the artist’s reach. But now we no longer kneel in front of a boulder carving with a chisel, or sit with a quill pen dipping it into a pot of ink to hand-write letters on paper. Writing is detached from touch and art is less and less about the engagement of our primary senses. We are bombarded by the virtual, our bodies no longer the navel that connects us to a tactile awareness of the world. The computer flattens the sensory experience of inside and outside, pushing us to become observers and viewers rather than participants.

Houshiary’s borderless membranes imply an osmotic relationship between the self and the world. They revitalise human experience within space, to stand in contrast to Heidegger’s suggestion that the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture and that the hegemony of sight has weakened compassion and empathy because it separates. Not only does she blur boundaries between the visual and the literary, between participation and commentary, but also between sign and utterance, in a hierarchical system of the senses where the eye/I has generally become the centre of the perceptual self. But to experience the world through the skin is to understand the binaries of interiority and exteriority, life and death.

Lining the streets and avenues of Singapore are phalanx of Raintrees, their beautiful arboreal cover giving shade from the heat and shelter from monsoons. Yet these are not trees that are indigenous to Asia but imports from Mexico and Peru. Albizia saman is a species of flowering tree of the pea family, Fabaceae. Its range extends from Mexico south to Peru and Brazil, though it has been widely introduced to South and Southeast Asia, as well as to the Pacific Islands and Hawaii. A wide-canopied tree with a large symmetrical crown, it can reach a height of 25 m and a diameter of 40 m. The leaves fold in rainy weather and in the evening, hence the name “rain tree” or “five o’clock tree” (Pukul Lima) in Malay. The various varieties bear reddish pink and creamy golden coloured flowers. In a series of 6 new etchings on thick handmade paper entitled Migrants, Houshiary challenges our perceptions of the word. The abstract surfaces of these indigo etchings suggest views from both underneath the canopy of branches, looking up towards the sky, as well as an aerial view down through the foliage. How we view the tree, as with the way we choose to view the migrant, is all a matter of perception. Culture is not fixed. It evolves through time, through the dispersal of humanity and custom and the movement of organic material. It is a fluid, constant cycle of renewal and entropy. Singapore is a rainbow nation. A nation built on migration. Civilization is dependent on a cross fertilization of ideas. When Pol Pot cut down the Raintrees of Cambodia, because he considered them to be an alien foreign species, it was not just an act of ecological destruction but an assault on the ebb and flow of civilization, the interrelationship of cultural ideas.

The overall abstract patterning of these Raintree etchings has no centre, no boundaries. This image of a visual and physical world without borders touches on this decade’s pre-eminent issue of population movement and migration. Houshiary seems to suggest that migration and change are part of a universal process, that nothing is indigenous but rather the result of a hybrid of chance, history, geography and nature. As the late Bruce Chatwin wrote in Songlines, his poetic evocation of Aboriginal journeys: “As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less ‘aggressive’ than sedentary ones. There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a ‘leveller’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.” The migration erases the need for hierarchies and shows of dominance.”

In the essay Forms of Inattention, from his book On Balance, the psychoanalyst and literary critic, Adam Philips, notes that: “Barthes reminded us that the erotic is always appearance as disappearance. If it is knowing almost nothing that is so alluring, the quest for knowledge would seem to be about dispelling desire, relieving oneself of the burden of it. There is a certain kind of nothing, a certain kind of (elusive) object, that seems to single us out, that invites our curiosity whether we want it or not.”

Shirazeh Houshiary excels in creating objects that possess this ‘certain kind of nothing’, elusive objects that do not offer the viewer a narrative but a sense of moving towards something that might, in time, be revealed through the senses. Like an inhale or exhale of breath her works pulsate with intuitive meaning. Elusive in their stillness and silence, significance seeps from their surfaces like the distant echo of sacred music. We may not immediately understand what we are hearing, but are drawn towards the sound, to the seductive tonalities, the enveloping harmonies and counterpoints full of mystery and potential promise.

Art Catalogues

Liliane Tomasko
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.

Art Catalogues

Shani Rhys James

“I feel there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

“I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.”
Henri Matisse

In Black Painting with Lilies a woman peers from behind a big jug of flowers. Her expression is anxious, as if the slightest disturbance might send her scurrying away back into the shadows. Watchful and suspicious she seems to sniff the air, her eyes darting from behind the jungle of blooms like those of some fugitive animal. Half her face remains obscured, while the other half is lit from an invisible light source, emerging nervously from the raven blackness, dark as Goya’s Pinturas negras, with their haunting themes of panic, fear and hysteria. What is she looking at? What can she see? Why is she afraid? It’s as if she is holding out the pot of flowers as an offering, using it as a barrier between herself and the world.The flowers are mostly white lilies, though a few are pink and there are some yellow sprigs that might be marigolds. But mostly they are white. Funeral lilies, wedding lilies. Their virginal pallor is almost sacrificial. On the table beside them sits a fluted white china teapot and an empty jam jar. These objects recur again and again in Shani Rhys James’s paintings. The belly shaped teapot, with its squat curves, embodies the traditional feminine qualities of warmth and nurture, in contrast to the jam jar, which is empty and cold to the touch.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to read these images as a refashioning of the 19th century tropes about feminine psychology. Shani Rhys James taps into these conceits and the idea of the repressed hysteric. Wife, mother, home-maker are juxtaposed with the empty vessel, the tabula rasa of the artist who might express less acceptable feelings.The domestic face of femininity is contrasted with a fragile, empty self that needs to be filled by ar t in order to exist. Such doubling occurs in 19th century literature, for example, in the ‘good’, compliant Jane Eyre and her doppelganger, ‘mad’ Bertha Mason hidden away in Rochester’s attic, with her over sexualised presence and mocking laugh.

In Behind the Lilies, the wide-eyed female figure is almost entirely obscured by the floral spray, trapped between the slightly decadent flock wall paper behind her and the jug of white flowers in front. You can almost smell the overpowering sweetness, the acrid, bodily perfume as they slowly decay turning from the virginal to the putrid. Shani Rhys James is by no means the first female painter to use flowers to explore psychosexual dynamics. Georgia O’ Keeffe produced a body of suggestive anatomical flower paintings. But Rhys James’s blooms are more ambiguous, more ambivalent. While they are certainly eroticised, they also speak of transience and the passing of time.

Scissors is, in many ways, a traditional vanitas painting, in which fruits and decaying flowers were inserted into a picture alongside expensive objects as symbols of life’s fleeting nature and a reminder that moral considerations deserve more attention than material things. Here the flamboyant poppies shake their red skirts like blousy showgirls. The impasto is thick, fleshy and slightly dissolute. Beside the chinoiserie vase lies a pair of open scissors.The symbolism is unmistakable: what blooms will also die. As in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, the ‘time-glossed’ rare blooms with “their lavish scent, /Heady and opulent, /with wisps of amber-like perfumes;” are metaphors both of excess and decay.

While Shani Rhys James’s earlier paintings dealt with the frictions of the mother/daughter relationship and the difficulties experienced as the only child of a flamboyant, itinerant actress, these paintings confront the loss of fertility and ageing. In previous work the mother has been a ubiquitous presence, appearing either as a second figure or transmogrified into a louring black chandelier, akin to Louise Bourgeois’s matriarchal spider, Maman, that hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the figure of the girl.

There has been much talk of the demise of painting but Shani Rhys James has eschewed fashion to follow her own course in the tradition of Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff, painters who luxuriate in the materiality of paint. Often bracketed with Frida Kahlo and Paula Rego for the confessional qualities in her work, neither of these artists are quite an accurate equivalence, for both are far more graphic. Among her contemporaries Rhys James might more appropriately be seen alongside Chantal Joffe, with whose edgy, painterly canvases hers have something in common. But to find her true precursor we need to go back to the German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. For with her sensual fleshy paint, her raw, unflinching self-portraits, and the pull between the psychological difficulties of being a daughter, wife and artist, she inhabits a similar terrain. In Caught in the Mirror, a single figure holds up a small oval looking-glass to confront both bald reality and the passing of time. Here Shani Rhys James scrutinises not only herself as a woman and an artist but holds a questioning glass up to us all.

Art Catalogues

Sarah Medway

Monograph published to coincide with the launch of
P&O Cruises Britannia

Published 2015 by Anomie Publishing

‘The true source of art’, wrote the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich (1744 – 1840),‘is our heart … a picture that does not spring from this source is nothing but affectation. Every genuine work of art is conceived … from an inner compulsion of the heart of which the artist himself often remains unconscious.’

Areas of light, contrasting with those of darkness, have been used in painting since before the Renaissance. Light has fascinated artists, philosophers, scientists and seekers after the ineffable and the transcendent. It embodies notions of hope and, throughout the history of western art, the experience of the divine. Darkness, on the other hand, has traditionally been connected to the negative.

Not even the most rational and secular mind can escape the mythical and mystical impact of light. In winter the sun is too weak to keep plants alive. Nature is reborn only when the sun returns in spring and obliterates the months of darkness. Deep within all human consciousness light is experienced as the essence of life. In early Christian paint- ing light signified the heavenly, while the Impressionists worked to capture its fleeting nature on objects and figures. In Chinese philosophy yin & yang symbols, designated as black and white segments of a whole, symbolise how apparently opposing forces – night and day, male and female – are actually complementary and interdependent in the natural world.

It is these dualities that find expression in this new series of work by Sarah Medway. Although resolutely abstract and informed by the sumptuous decorative qualities of the Austrian Secessionist painter, Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918), as well as by the mark-making of Japanese woodcuts, Sarah Medway’s paintings take their lyricism from the landscape and the natural world. For this new commission for P&O Britannia, the largest and most glamourous cruise ship built to date, she has made 56 oil paintings that measure from 60 cm to 183 cm square to be hung in the aft of the ship on the cabin decks and in the public rooms. The sea is a recurring theme. Not only does it imply the amniotic element of birth and renewal – as in baptism – but it also signifies a voyage. The journeys hinted at are both actual, as in the case of those travelling by ship, and symbolic, as in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts or C.S. Lewis’s allegory, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where it is equally a quest and a symbol of self-realisation.
In one of the most potent paintings, Stars and Sleet, the dark tones are broken by cold bursts of starlight and frozen rain, which illuminate the murky night. It is a powerful, lonely painting where we feel ourselves to be small and vulnerable, adrift and lost on the black ocean. The painting leads the viewer’s eye from the flickering movement of sleet and glinting stars into unknown nocturnal depths. In the Nightscape series the darkness is never solid, never totally unremitting. The anthracite hues are ruptured by the reflec- tion and refraction of light shimmering on water. Patterns weave across the opaque surface to form a complex tapestry and glow, jewel-like as stained glass windows, in the gloom of a Gothic cathedral.

Sarah Medway continually investigates the possibilities of her chosen medium with a wide range of brushes of differing shapes and sizes. She also draws with oil sticks directly onto the canvas. These areas are often softened by the use of a rag in order to diffuse the colour. The textured lozenges and discs, juxtaposed against the underlying smooth surfaces, create a veil. There is a sense that if it could be gently drawn back meaning would, somehow, be revealed. Yet like the lambent light cast from the windows of passing ships and distant stars, these images are fragile, inchoate and fleeting. What is evoked is not so much documentary fact as an emotional mood; a way of seeing. The sentiment of the sublime, according to the philosopher Kant, carries within it both pleasure and pain. Within everything we can find its opposite. These paintings articulate states of darkness and grief, as well as optimism and redemption, for which there are no words, only feelings.

Emotion is expressed through shape and colour. The pale pink blush of morning arrives as an epiphany at the end of a long night in the Dawn Tide paintings. Each day starts anew with fresh hope and new possibilities. Nothing is static. Everything is movement and flux. Continually different, continually renewed. The worlds created appear to have no borders but to expand way beyond the limits of the canvas. In the breaking dawn we understand something of the retreating night.

In contrast to the dark tonalities of Shadow Play and the soft nascent light of Spring Calm II, the canvases Sunset – Warm and Sunset – Cool pulse with burnished light. Their richness evokes the sumptuous mark-making of Klimt’s opulent gilded surface in Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and his most famous painting, The Kiss. The rich mosaics of Venice and Ravenna that inspired his gold technique and Byzantine imagery are mirrored in Sarah Medway’s marks and, here, translated into her own painterly language. In contrast to the cool freshness and luminosity of her Nordic Light paintings, these sunset canvases burn with Mediterranean warmth. The nets of yellow, bronze, gold and complementary blues vibrate so that the juxtaposed dots and marks allow the viewer’s eye to blend the colours optically. Born by the sea in a place with the sea in its name, Seaton Carew, in the north east of England, Sarah Medway spent her formative years on the north Norfolk coast. It was there that her perception was honed by the wide skies and the effect of continually changing light on water.

Most of us hold within us a sense of some idealised unnamed place, a longing for some- where that we unconsciously recognise as special and feels like home. In these paintings Sarah Medway has found visual equivalents for this elusive state of desire. The sea with its tides, ebbs and flows is endlessly reflected in the mirror of the sky. Light and weather change so that what we see is always different yet, somehow, always the same, as the waves roll on into an infinite future.

Art Catalogues

Sue Kennington

The sun beating down on earth and stone, bleaching the lines of washing strung out to dry across narrow mediaeval streets, creating deep shadows on a lime-washed wall – the intensity and clarity of Italian light is woven into our understanding of Western visual culture. From Cimabue and Duccio to Giotto a handful of painters from Tuscany were to change the way we understand and respond to light and colour. That Sue Kennington, despite an MA from that most conceptual of art schools, Goldsmiths, has made a remote part of rural Tuscany her permanent home, is evidence of how deeply rooted her art is in this Italian sensibility. The views around Siena, near where she lives, still look much like the rural scenes in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s quattrocento fresco, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, with its soft blue and pink hues, to be found in Siena Town Hall. Unlike the later, more naturalistic art of Florence, there’s a mystical streak to much Sienese art. Duccio – the Sienese master – created tender, often dreamlike paintings that explore depth, space and a sense of the divine through colour.

Sue Kennington’s work is an investigation into what light and colour can do within contemporary painting.  Although she comes from a family of painters – she is the great niece of Eric Kennington (1888-1960), known for his portraits and First World War pictures – she is a late-comer to the practice, having previously worked in theatre design. There light was an essential part of her vocabulary. The move to Italy, after the conceptual rigours of Goldsmiths, allowed her to put a distance between herself and the hard-boiled irony that prevailed during her time as a student.  Moving away from her earlier gestural paintings that flirted with bravura, celebratory mark-making in the vein of Bert Irving and Gillian Ayres, her surfaces have flattened and simplified to create veils and skins of subtle fresco-like colour. Touch, geometry and self-devised systems are combined with the random to create an essentially romantic and expressive language. In her recent painting Rough Cut, diamond forms created from thin veils of gold over black paint hover above a grid of soft earthy pinks and browns. There is something of Sean Scully’s sensibility here, where the ragged edges of the rectangles reveal the layer of under painting like a glimpse of a hidden domain. This gives a sense of space and distance, as if a curtain is being lifted to reveal a limitless void. The Renaissance view that a painting was a window onto the world is suggested by implication.

This sense of something ‘beyond’ is there even more strongly in Paradiso, where two blue arches seem to draw apart to lead through to a space in another dimension. While not a direct reference, there is an implicit nod to Piero della Francesca’s 1445 Madonna della Misericorda with her embracing outstretched cloak, and to the open blue dress of his 1459 Madonna del Parto. While Kennington is not making religious paintings, as such, this oblique reference to the blue of the Virgin suggests the struggle, within a postmodern vocabulary, to find ways of expressing what cannot easily be expressed and of reaching towards what is, ultimately, unreachable.
By immersing herself in the light and solitude of rural Italy, Sue Kennington has been able to distance herself from the brittle vocabulary of Goldsmiths, whilst still having a keen awareness of contemporary debates about the nature of painting. This has resulted in a body of work that is entirely her own – full of a subtle insight and authenticity.

Art Catalogues

Mat Collishaw
A Terrible Beauty

A Terrible Beauty – Catalogue Essay

He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Extract from ‘Easter’, 1916
W B Yeats

Paintings: At first glance they appear to be abstract, constructed on a modernist grid, though the lines, in fact, are folds, creases left in the small square wraps of paper used to sell cocaine. These wraps have been torn from glossy magazines; there’s a woman’s foot in a high-heeled shoe resting on a glass table, and adverts for Fendi and Gucci. The subtext seems to be that these aspirational trappings are the spectral presence of an endless illusion that functions much like an addiction to drugs. You’re always left wanting more. The work is about debasement; the debasement of modernist painting as a form and as a result of the recent financial excesses that have led to the current economic crisis.

Nottingham – Goldsmiths part of the YBA generation and have lived with Tracey Emin but there remains something of the outsider about him. Work has always favoured emotional complexity and philosophical resonance over ironic insouciance,

Signature pieces – a bullet hole in the head – for Damien Hirst’s Frieze, nearly 20 years ago, but and then there’s been his wild life style.

The Jesuits used to say that if you gave them a child for seven years they’d show you the man. But in Collishaw’s case it wasn’t priestly influence that cemented his youthful experience but the Christadelphians – a 19th century fundamentalist Christian sect that traces its origins back to one John Thomas who, in 1832, following a near shipwreck on the way to America, dedicated himself to God through personal Biblical study. For Collishaw this meant growing up without a television or Christmas celebrations in a home where the Bible was read nightly and everything else was considered a distraction from the word of God. One of four boys his father, a dental technician, is a keen photographer with a penchant for taking pictures of flowers. Attending the local comprehensive Collishaw wasn’t allowed to take part in morning assembly. Left to his own devises he’d distract himself by walking round the classroom with his satchel on his head or drawing. A shy boy his artistic ability became a way of commanding respect. Later he migrated to the library and discovered Dadaism and Surrealism. Like portals onto a forbidden world they showcased everything that he’d been brought up to reject –ideas, aesthetics, desire, sexuality and the unconscious. As many young people do, he spent time flirting with alternative religions, but then he came across Darwin and the world suddenly made sense.

In the nineteenth century a tense debate between religion and science characterized the era. Natural history and the collecting of specimens were seen as ways of ordering and codifying the world. The Wunderkammer or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ had been a Renaissance devise for containing types of objects whose classifications were yet to be defined but the Victorians used them to categorize objects as belonging either to natural history (created by God) or religious and historical relics and works of art (made by man). Entomology was a passion and lepidoptery a particularly Victorian pursuit. But the border between real and bogus sciences such as spiritualism and phrenology was thin. Fairy painting was very close to the centre of the Victorian subconscious framing many of the opposing elements in the 19th century psyche: the desire to escape the harsh realities of daily existence; the burgeoning new attitudes towards sex that were stifled by religion; a passion for the unseen, mirrored in the birth of psychoanalysis and the proliferation of spiritualism, a suspicion of the new art of photography and a deep fear of, yet fascination with, miscegenation between different races, classes and species. This palimpsest of attitudes, with its repressions and voyeuristic tendencies, where desire was veiled behind an idealised surface is territory that Mat Collishaw shares with the Victorian sensibility.

In 1917, two cousins, 10-year-old Frances Griffiths and 16-year-old Elsie Wright, produced photographs they’d taken showing them in the company of fairies and gnomes in a glen. Their mother gave the photos to Edward L. Gardner of the then-popular Theosophical Society. Through Gardner, the story reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had become obsessed with spiritualism after the death of his son. Conan Doyle encouraged Gardner to give cameras to the girls, in the hope that they’d come up with new fairy portraits. The cousins produced three new photos which were accepted as genuine by Conan Doyle, who wrote about them in The Strand magazine. As claims and counterclaims about the pictures’ authenticity flew around, they became the centre of one of the greatest science-vs.-superstition controversies of the early 20th century. In the 1990s Mat Collishaw came across the Cottingley fairy books. His own Catching Fairies, 1996 shows him crouched in a murky East London canal in the guise of a fairy catcher trying to ensnare the uncatchable. In Duty Free Spirits, 1997 three cherubic tots stand in an abundant garden of saturated Pre-Raphaelite colour looking at a dead robin, which they might or might not have killed. There’s something obsessive and darkly malevolent about the image reminiscent of Richard Dadd, the schizophrenic Victorian fairy painter incarcerated in Bedlam for the murder of his father.

In his exhibition Shooting Stars, 2008 at the Haunch of Venison, Collishaw used images culled from old photographs and books of Victorian child prostitutes in vulnerable, yet alluring poses, which he projected onto the gallery walls and mingled with those restaged with an older female model to disturbing and dreamlike effect. Fired onto phosphorescent paint the images flared briefly before slowly fading from view. These suggested the children’s brief lives, blighted by violence and sexually transmitted diseases. For many of these girls their existence was not much longer than the fleeting exposure of the camera shutter.

There have been many other controversial images: a girl lashed to a cross, semi-naked pre-pubescent boys, after Von Gloden and based on Caravaggio as a way of getting around the censorship laws of the time, crushed butterflies whose velvety wings and smeared juices suggest something both sadistic and sexual, photos of exotic lilies and amaryllis, their beautiful blooms riddled with pustules from sexually transmitted diseases – Collishaw’s own version of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mals.

The pull is always between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, the ego and the id, between metamorphosis, transformation and decay. As with the Pre-Raphaelites there’s always a dark underbelly, an ever-present flirtation with destruction, decadence and death. Beauty has, as Wilde so well understood, within it the seeds of its own destruction. An early self-portrait shows Collishaw lying in the gutter, naked to the waist, staring into a puddle like some modern-day Narcissus, again emphasising the pull between the ideal of the beautiful and sordid reality, for this Narcissus could well be a drug addict or a drunk lying deluded among the detritus of a city street.

An animated video of the Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin’s The Island of the Dead expands this flirtation with death. Böcklin’s allegorical paintings, many based on mythical creatures, anticipated 20th-century surrealism. His early style consisted of idealized classical landscapes. In the 1870s he turned to German legends, inhabiting similar territory to Richard Wagner. Later works, such as The Island of the Dead, produced between 1880-1886, became increasingly dreamlike and nightmarish. Collishaw’s version at the Haunch of Venison had an LCD screen behind a two-way mirror , in which shadows passed like an eclipse during a 24 hour period. Caught like some alienated figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, looking out into an existential void, was the reflected image of the viewer. The lone figure from Böcklin’s original painting turned up in a recreated daguerreotype hung on an adjacent wall so that the negative image of the lost girl only appeared positive when passed over by the viewer’s shadow. The ectoplasmic smoke and mirrors nature of the work was reminiscent of the tricks used by 19th century spiritualists and lovers of the séance.

This yearning for dissolution could also be experienced in the flickering shadows of his zoetrope, Throbbing Gristle, 2008 a cylindrical device that produces the illusion of action from a rapid succession of static images. As early as the 1860s projected moving images were created using magic lantern zoetropes. Collishaw’s version spins so the small figurines – a Minotaur ravaging a maiden, the Three Graces, a she-wolf and a wine swigging cherub – move magically in their own corrupted Eden.

It could be argued that the world has never looked the same after Freud, that we are all now too aware of the worm in the apple and that an image can no longer be looked at without the filter of self-knowledge. Innocence, along with religion and belief, are dead; for we’re all in the know now. Although not an admirer of Freud Collishaw’s show Hysteria, 2009 at North London’s Freud Museum, explored the collision of scientific empiricism with superstition. Taking its title from the print above Freud’s couch of the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot showing his students a woman having a hysterical fit – whom Charcot treated with hypnotism – Collishaw became interested in the dark and often dubious practices of these early psychological practitioners. Three gnarled tree stumps placed in Freud’s study, which seemed to grow surreally from the famous Persian rugs, doubled as record players. Emanating birdsong the needles, which began at the centre, spiralled outwards mimicking the rings of a tree and, perhaps, the way we remember through the process of endless repetition and recounting.

Decadent art, as Théophile Gautier suggested in his life of Baudelaire, is full of shades of meaning, always pushing against the limits of language, forcing itself to express the ineffable “the singular hallucinations of the fixed idea verging on madness… In opposition to the classic style, it admits of shading, and these shadows teem and swarm with the larvae of superstitions, the haggard phantoms of insomnia, nocturnal terrors, remorse which starts and turns back at the slightest noise, monstrous dreams stayed only by impotence, obscure phantasies at which daylight would stand amazed, and all that the soul conceals of the dark, the unformed, and the vaguely horrible, in its deepest and furthest recesses.”

Desire is at the basis of most human behaviour from sex and procreation to the pursuit of beauty and death. Our lives are held between the two conflicting points of Eros and Thanatos. What enchants also ensnares, poisons and kills. The sublime is bedfellows with the abject. Collishaw contrives nightmarish horrors with a great formal elegance, whether taking on subjects like inmates’ last meals on death row, the blood-spattered survivors of Beslan or crushed butterflies. For a series of photographs made in 2000, he staged scenes of Nazi couples post-suicide in their bunker decorated with gilt-framed oil paintings, leather chairs, and opulent candelabra. Strewn across the furniture in various stages of undress, the post orgiastic figures exemplify what Bataille calls, in his study of Eroticism, dissolution. “The domain of eroticism”, he wrote, “is the domain of violence, of violation….. The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives…. The most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of our discontinuous being.”

The ‘divine’ and the ‘sacred’ have also always carried within them the undertones of frenzy and a flirtation with death. This violent aspect of divinity has been made manifest in sacrificial rites from Bacchanalian orgies to the celebration of the host. Even the Cross itself links Christian consciousness to the horror of the divine and the sublime. As Bataille argues “the divine will only protect us once its basic need to consume and to ruin has been satisfied”. Playing on notions of the forbidden and the abject Collishaw throws up complex questions about what defines personal and social morality to show that what appears virtuous is often corrupt and, what is defined as corrupt, may, indeed, have some virtue. The Victorians veiled their transgressions behind a veneer of pious morality and saccharine sanctity but Collishaw convincingly reveals that we are all, in fact, a libidinous mixture of dark and light.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Art Catalogues

Tony Bevan
New Paintings

Catalogue Essay for the Exhibition at Ben Brown Arts

In my writing I am acting as a map maker, explorer of psychic area… a cosomonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed

William S. Burroughs

What does it mean to make a chart or a map? In the conventional sense it is, of course, about topography, and concerns the contours of land, the flow of rivers and the height of mountains. But it can have an altogether more metaphorical meaning, for as Jürgen Habermas writes in Modernity – An Incomplete Project:The avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured.

Tony Bevan Head and Neck 2007
Head and Neck, 2007

Since Modernism, nothing can be taken as given, nothing is fixed. What Jürgen Habermas calls “these forward gropings” anticipate an undefined future. “The new value placed on the transitory, the elusive and the ephemeral”, he argues “… discloses a longing for an undefiled, immaculate and stable present”. To “map” in this context, therefore, implies charting the unknowable territory of the psyche, starting out on a journey without a clear sense of direction, or of the final destination. It is an act of faith in a faithless world, for there is no certainty as to where that journey might end. It is propelled only by the desire to find (whilst knowing the impossibility of doing so) something ‘undefiled’ and possibly ‘immaculate’.

Tony Bevan’s heads and architectural spaces, along with his newer series of studio furniture, do not fit neatly into any painterly category. They are neither figurative, in the strict sense that they are ‘copies’ of what he has observed in the world, nor are they entirely abstract, in that the imagery has been broken down into a series of painterly gestures divorced from the actual visible world. Born out of the reality of observation, they are a tentative exploration of the one-dimensional space of the canvas, which seems to undergo some sort of transformation so that the paintings open out into a metaphysical space that is experienced as beyond that of the physical picture plane. The canvas becomes an arena in which to act and explore, a space to “express” – to borrow Harold Rosenberg’s word used when describing American Abstract Expressionism – an object, actual or imagined. Painting, Rosenberg argues, “is the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence”, a process that reveals the personality of the painter. Through contact with a painting we come to understand something of the artist – not in terms of cod psychology – but rather how he translates his psychological experience into something new, to say what has been previously unsaid. What we witness, if we are mindful, is the creative process enacted.

Tony Bevan Crossing 2007
Crossing, 2007

In Tony Bevan’s painting, Crossing, a bridge appears to hang in space. Vertical poles are strung out on wires. It is the sort of bridge that might traverse a ravine or a fast river. The structure is similar to that of bridges known from many Japanese paintings and prints beloved by van Gogh. Yet here it is impossible to determine where the bridge begins and ends. No human presence is detectable. There are no scuttling merchants, no horses and carts, no one on a bicycle; it seems simply to be a transitional point linking one unidentified place with another. All that we know is that it connects two spaces. But these spaces remain tantalisingly unknown and inchoate. Like the cartographer travelling in an unfamiliar land, we can only trust, as we make the crossing, and see where we end up. There is a sense that this bridge leads to a different realm, to somewhere deeper and more profound than we are used to on a daily basis. Yes, it is a bridge, but it is a psychological bridge between two states, whilst the fact that it is painted in a sort of rusty ox-blood red suggests a connection with the body, and the possibility of arteries or tendons. This red recurs time and again in Bevan’s paintings, along with primal orange and sometimes cobalt blue. With his use of charcoal, it suggests something very ancient, a connection to art’s roots, to aboriginal painting made from the earth’s pigments or the magical ochre and soot paintings on the walls of the caves at Lascaux in France.

This feeling that there is something important going on beneath the surface of things is integral to all Tony Bevan’s work. Blood-red cicatrices run like knife wounds diagonally across the surface of the face and across the neck in Head and Neck. It is impossible not to read these marks as wounds, though Sevan himself talks of them rather as “flow patterns”. Yet with their jagged edges, they look like the ragged stitch marks left by some cack-handed surgeon, and suggest that there’s been an attempt to peel back the flesh from the bone to reveal what lies beneath. The tendons of the attenuated neck are taut and stretched as if trying to hold up the lacerated head. It is impossible to look at these self-portraits without thinking of Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas, where the Phrygian satyr, in a fit of hubristic pride, dared challenge the god Apollo to a musical contest. As punishment for his presumption, Apollo had Marsyas tied to a tree and flayed him alive. And then, too, there is Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, where collective medical students collect around the dissecting table to peer at the sinews of a cadaver, a common criminal hung that very morning. Both these paintings are connected by the revelation of what lies beneath the surface.

Tony Bevan Stones 2007
Stones, 2007

In his self-portraits, Tony Bevan lays bare the social face that is presented to the world, peeling it back to reveal an essential essence or fundamental truth. This process is similar to setting out on a journey into the interior, into that heart of darkness that lurks at the centre of all modern individuals. And the place we arrive at? Well, it is one of existential doubt, a place where only more questions can be asked, where all that is discovered is an approximation. That is art’s inherent failure. For as Alberto Giacometti said: “All I can do will only ever be a faint image of what I see and my success will always be less than my failure or perhaps equal to the failure”.

In Head, the image has become even more deconstructed. The top has gone, and the face seems to dissolve and collapse, so that we are reminded of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray portrait hidden in the attic, taking on the marks of its subject’s lived experience. All that is left behind by the series of lines that run horizontally across the face, like wires holding down Gulliver, or musical staves, is the suggestion of a nose, with its prominent nostrils and a mouth. The whole has been reduced to these basic components, the minimum needed to constitute life; points of inhalation and exhalation thrust up like some animal snout gasping for air. The image conjures, in its isolation and distress, the articulating mouth in Samuel Beckett’s Not I, which itself was suggested, according to the author in a letter postmarked 30 April 1974, by Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist’ in Valletta Cathedral. Bevan has talked of a disembodied sense of existence, which he has experienced several times in the studio – an experience known as “autoscopy”, in which a person, while believing himself to be awake, sees his body and the world from a location outside his physical body.

Tony Bevan Studio Tower 2008
Studio Tower, 2008

When discussing his work, Bevan gives little away other than talking in terms of form and space. He has said that painting is a silent language that he can’t easily talk about. Interpretation is left to others. Yet looking at his piles of rounded stones or boulders, it is not hard to read these painted potato forms as even further-reduced references to the head, by now completely disembodied and featureless – difficult not to see them as oblique references to the skulls found in mass graves. Of course, they are not about these things. Bevan talks of them simply as piles of stones, but, as with all good art, they spark the imagination of the viewer and suggest multiple readings.

He likes to work with his drawings and recent paintings all around him, for they act as notes reminding him of particular concerns. To work in an empty studio is uncomfortable. He starts on an unstretched canvas, often working on the floor on his hands and knees. Much comes through the process of drawing, and is suggested by how his material behaves. He tries not to make conscious decisions, but simply to allow a stream of consciousness to flow. Often the material determines what should be a drawing or a painting. Using the physical resistance of the floor, the charcoal splinters and spits, leaving a residue that is locked in with acrylic medium. It is this unpredictability that he cherishes. Marks are also dependent on how paint is loaded onto the brush. The physical quality of his medium is paramount. Yet for such a mild-mannered man, these are violently sensual paintings. It is perhaps for this quality, along with the isolation of the subject within the picture space, as well as the dominance of red and black, that he is so often compared to Francis Bacon.

Tony Bevan Furniture 2008
Furniture, 2008

Following a number of paintings depicting open roofs and rafters, he has taken to painting what he calls studio furniture. The result is a number of horizontal skeletal structures reminiscent of Vladimir Tallin’s famous Modernist tower. With their open lattice-work of girders, they suggest electrical pylons or oil rigs, though on closer observation many of the lines do not connect, and these edifices, as in Furniture, seem on the point of disintegration. Again, there are many readings, from the Tower of Babel to the collapse of Modernism. For these images seem to suggest the fragmentation of the holistic grid that was the Utopian arena of so much Modernist art. There is a quiet irony to a painting such as Monument, where a Piranesian stack stands in isolation on a red ground like an empty symbol of some discredited dogma; for who in the modern world can believe in monuments now?

In Table Top the studio objects have been parred down to the bone so that the whole resembles, on its spindly legs, a citadel of pagodas and towers, a city of the imagination such as might have been conjured in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Its nervy lines also recall something of Giacometti’s Apple on the Sideboard (1937), with its edgy contrasts of light and dark. Tony Bevan is one of the most authentic and fearless artists working today. He is unafraid of undertaking deep philosophical and psychological investigations. His tough, uncompromising works are raw and profoundly human and do not shirk from showing vulnerability.

Enlightenment thinkers still had the expectation that both art and science could promote an understanding of the world and of the self, as well as defining moral progress and even human happiness. The twentieth century shattered such optimism. This has lead to a reduced space in which artists who want to explore the human condition can operate. By working in a fairly narrow terrain, Bevan’s self-portraits, his roofs, towers and studio furniture, with their charcoal drawing, their single inconsistent pigments, their lacerations and strange perspectives speak eloquently of what it means to inhabit the contemporary world. “I have,” wrote Albert Camus, “seen many people die because life for them was not worth living. From this I conclude that the question of life’s meaning is the most question of them all.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Tony Bevan 2007-2008

Art Catalogues

Citibank Photography Prize 1999

Citibank Photography Prize 1999

Augusto Alves da Silva   Rineke Dijkstra   Alex Hartley   Yinka Shonibare   Paul M Smith

Augusto Alves da Silva

In Augusto Alves da Silva`s synchronised slide projection, Road Works, the viewer’s spatial sense is constantly disrupted, the presumption of forward movement challenged. The mountains in the background always look vaguely the same, but the foreground, if the viewer pays attention, shifts more abruptly. Superficially things appear to change. As the sequence of Alves da Silva’s journey on foot down along mountain road progresses, we see a group of horses, a shepherd, a dog, a Land Rover, some cattle. Sometimes the apparent logic of the sequence is broken, the horses, which seem to approach the viewer, simply disappear.

There is a sense of dislocation. Everything is different, yet everything remains the same. The belief, that the implied journey will lead inevitably to its end, is frustrated. The road is a modern metaphor, a contemporary
signitier for belief, a pilgrim’s way. lt implies faith, the faith that when you leave one place you will, finally, arrive at another, that something will have changed, that the journey will have proved both necessary and worthwhile. The road is the space that connects here with there, the past with the present and the future, it is a symbol of transition. Movement is life, stasis a form of corporeal and spiritual death.

Here the traveller does not seem to impinge upon or engage with the landscape. We are presented with a narrative observed cinematographically and at one remove. Our sense of unease is reinforced because there are no real identifying landmarks. We might be anywhere. lt is a generic place. The traditional relationship with the vanishing point of a perspectival painting is interrupted. The sound of the changing slides, projected on to opposing walls, and which fade into one another heightens this sense of discomfort. As viewers, we feel a mounting anxiety as we begin to lose orientation, caught up in a continuous loop of postmodernity.

Rineke Dijkstra

Empathy and objectivity are the hallmarks of Dijkstra’s portraits. In an era when most art surrounds itself with the ironic armour of inverted commas, such a clear gaze is unnerving.

The French philosopher Roland Barthes described photography as a form of death. The clicking shutter guillotines the present off from the future conrraling it instantly in the past. We can never again become that person shot by the camera only a moment before. We are consigned to the narrative of our own history. Dijkstra’s photographs of young people on beaches as far apart as the Ukraine and Long lsland, isolate them in that moment between childhood and adulthood. They stand in front of the camera physically self-conscious, vulnerable, the wide expanse of sea stretching behind them, an emblem of the new space they will enter as adults. The gawky young Polish girl in a lime green costume seems unaware that the damp tide mark of sea across the crotch of her swim suit will carry other meanings when photographed. A young American girl in a tangerine bikini holding her tress of blond hair, seems barely aware of the power of her emerging sexuality. Similarly, in an ongoing body of work, Dijkstra’s portraits of America – shot at intervals of several years against the backdrop of institutional and domestic spaces – reveal the transition from a state of non-awareness to the conscious projection of self image. 

The edge between life and death is explored in Dijkstra’s images of bullfighters. Their bloodied and shell- shocked faces, their glazed brown eyes, denote both a defiance of the camera and a vulnerability belied by the machismo of their gore spattered costumes. In other portraits of teenagers recorded on video at The Buzz Club, Liverpool, Dijkstra’s subjects are more complicit with the camera, trying to project how they wish to be viewed. It is this mixture of artifice and their very ordinariness that is so poignant. Their self-consciousness contrasts, with almost shocking rawness, to Dijkstra’s photographs of naked mothers just after giving birth. Here there is no mask. The viewer is stabbed by what Barthes caled the punctum, the wound, that goes straight to the heart in a photograph. ln these works, Dijkstra, though her unflinching gaze, illustrates the poignancy of the human condtion.

Alex Hartley

The pristine white interiors – empty galleries and industrial buildings – depicted within Alex Hartley’s light boxes are idealised spaces that the viewer is only able to observe from the outside, never enter. Using clean, minimalist lines appropriated from modernist architecture, domestic and public interiors, Hartley disrupts and dislocates our experience of what is real and what is imagined.

Set behind frosted glass, these spaces, flooded with natural and artificiallight, are blurred and ectoplasmic. They suggest something unworldly, just beyond the edge of lived experience, like rooms half remembered from dreams. Their lonely silence is the hush of the sacred. They beckon with their still calm but we are
indefinitely excluded from entering their secure serenity. Totemic towers which appear to rise darkly like ancient henges in the mist are, in fact, urban council flats. Contained in steel boxes of near life size, they
too play with notions of dislocation of scale, space and sensory perception, addressing not only our psychological relationship with these issues but our physical relationship with the objects through the
interplay between sculpture, architecture and photography.

This relationship between looking and what is being looked at is further heightened in the gargantuan, fully functioning slide viewer. The very title, Wewer, is a reminder of the complex relationship a contemporary art object has with its audience. lt emphasises that such an object is not autonomous but dependent on the dialogue set up with the observer Notions of artitice, authenticity and value are all explored through the use of the slide viewer, the currency of the art world, of the collector, critic, and curator. ‘Real’ work is rarely selected. Rather choice becomes dependent on a projection of the ‘real’. through the view finder the ideal is glimpsed but again the observer is held off, frustrated.

Within Hartley’s work, the Utopian visions of modernism, its assertive confidence, are still visible but not quite within reach. The spaces of the empty gallery and industrial site are sealed off behind glass. The modernist agenda which considered notions of community and the needs of the individual is displaced and the viewer left isolated in the indefinable space of postmodem culture.

Yinka Shonibare

ls cultural identity a construct? lf the trappings of privilege and power are removed, are we ‘all the same under the skin’? Are we simply what we own and if stripped of the artefacts of class and wealth do we lose that identity? Yinka Shonibare’s witty and iconoclastic installations and photographs play games in the spaces where the post-colonial and the post-modern meet. Shot on location over a period of three days in an opulent stately home in Hertfordshire, Shonibare appropriated its country house interiors and took on the central role of Dandy to explore notions of dominance, subservience and artifice, of Victorian Britain and British Heritage against the backdrop of our colonial legacy. Shonibare’s staged photographs mimic the style of Victorian theatre at the height of colonialism. Within this scenario Shonibare takes on the character of the English fop – familiar from – Beau Brummel to Wilde – playing on the double bluff that such dandyism is itself the construct of a fictitious identity.

Shonibare plunders pell-mell fashion, craft, ethnography and painting, blurring the differences between fine art and craft, ‘primitive’ and ‘first’ world art, to force questions about ‘authenticity’. In the creation of his opulent Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour of 1996/97, he used newly created African batiks decorated with motifs of black footballers playing for European clubs. With Diary of a Victorian Dandy, the fawning sycophancy and hypocrisy of the white protagonists surrounding the Dandy highlights the complexities of social integration and the apparent acceptance of those seen as ‘other’ by the ruling classes. Shonibare colludes with the viewer to make us painfully aware that without the trappings of wealth or class the black Dandy is displaying he would never have gained access to this social milieu. Despite the playful scenario, Shonibare illustrates that, while for the moment the ruling classes may enjoy him as an ‘exotic’ curiosity, much in the same way as 18th century wealthy families kept small blackamoor houseboys dressed appealingly in the family livery, should he cease to entertain them they are quite likely to close ranks placing him once again on the outside. Confusions of social identity are further compounded when he appears to take on the privileged position of the man ofthe house despite its playful humour; the work uncovers, with biting satire. continuing hypocrisies associated with attitudes towards race and class.

Paul M Smith

So deep is our belief that the camera never lies, that photographs are fact, that we feel duped on discovering that what appears ‘real’ is stage-managed fiction. We find ourselves thrown off guard. But photography allows for self-creation, the re-writing of narratives. Appearances deceive. Truth can be whatever we choose. After growing up in the West Country garrison town of Warminster, Paul Michael Smith joined up for a spell in the army, being posted to Germany before attending art college. On leaving the Royal College of Art in 1997, he concentrated on two bodies of work: Artists Rifles and Make My Night. The title of the first is taken from the 1860 ‘Corps of Artists’ formed by Edward Sterling which contained in its distinguished ranks John Millais, Lord Leighton, Holman Hunt and William Morris. The poet Wilfred Owen was also to join Smith’s photographs appear to be documentary. The young men lined up in front of a tank might come from a promotional pamphlet for the Territorials proclaiming ‘Join the Army and See the World’, However, closer inspection reveals not only the heroics

of soldiering but its dehuma- nising brutality; a terrified man in a black blindfold about to be executed; three soldiers burying a corpse. The sense that war is a boys game is undermined and ironised by the discovery that all the participants are, in fact, the same person. The laughing lad on the tank is also the executioner, the grave digger and the artist. Rather than neutralising war Smith’s images brings it’ vividly and shockingly home. The sense of distancing from real emotion behind a carapace of archetypal group male behaviour is further emphasised in the series depicting a ‘lads’ night out. These might be the same ‘lads’ as those in uniform ‘off duty’. Their antics are not those of the individual but of the pack. Testosterone rules. These fictitious constructs where the artist plays all the characters not only draw attention to the slippage between reportage and fiction but juxtapose covert inner vulnerability and emotional ‘truth’ with the constructed fictions of social identity.

Art Catalogues

Eileen Cooper
Second Skin

Catalogue for Art First Contemporary Art, London

Touring exhibition to Wolverhampton, Nottingham and Eastbourne
The Dark Side of the Moon

A naked female acrobat balances on a high wire. Below her is a pool of deep blue water, ahead a hoop of fire. On the ground near the tight rope is a ladder and a brick wall fringed with barbed wire. The young woman literally has the world at her feet. Will she fall into the deep pool of obscurity or dare to jump through that element of transformation – fire – into new possibilities? Perhaps she will decide to climb the ladder or attempt, in a series of futile gestures, to scale the brick wall. Obstacle Coursewas painted in 1982 when Eileen Cooper was still single and is one of the rare works of that period where the central figure is unaccompanied by an other living being. Here the future stretches ahead, a series of infinite choices.

Eileen Cooper Boys and Tiger 1991
Boys and Tiger, 1991

Marriage and motherhood have provided Eileen Cooper with a fecund range of images. They have also given her a psychodynamic vocabulary in which to explore the social tensions that affect the creative woman/mother, as well as a language to investigate the cultural dialectic between the elemental and the cerebral, the intuitive and the rational, the Dionysian and the Apollonian.

When I first met Eileen in the 80s we were both young women juggling childcare with creative lives. We immediately felt a natural empathy, linked by the fact that we had separately arrived at the use of similar imagery; her within her paintings and me within my poems. It was these tensions between motherhood and those of being a young artist, which were to become integrated, through the appropriation of autobiographical material, into her work. Trained at Goldsmiths and the Royal College her early work was passionate, intuitive and original. It had a poetic quality, concerned as much with emotional and psychic experience as with geometric spatial relationships or form. It was raw, daring and essentially female without being feminine. At art school she felt she had lost her way, so was basically left alone. This was to be her making. By fusing the oppositional nature of career/creator, the destructive binary faced by so many women was overcome. Her early themes were those of pregnancy, birth and motherhood. Rounded stomachs, babies, ships, flowers were all recurring emblems in her flame reds, visceral pinks and oranges, her luscious blues. Her imagery was full of archetypal symbols: the sun as life, the moon as the dark side of the female psyche with its ebbs and flows and cyclical rhythms. Sunflowers, burst into life, there were fish, flowers, and rainbows. This was the work of a young woman. There was something Utopian about all this fecundity. Its strength lay in the fact that her mothers were not sanitised images of a beatified Madonnas, but rather something more ancient and atavistic. These were Earth Mothers, powerful matriarchal goddesses, rather than the gentle nurturer of Christian iconography. This quality of ‘paganising’ her subject mater, so to speak, returns in the work that she has done here at the Dulwich picture gallery. Her flattened forms, with their mask-like faces draw their inspiration from primitivism. From the chunky figures of Gauguin and the African masks that so influenced Picasso. She has never been interested in naturalism and her work draws on influences as diverse as Indian and Persian art and the dreamlike work of Ken Kiff. Clemente and Odilin Redon also come to mind.

Eileen Cooper Woman bathing in her own tears 1987
Woman bathing in her own tears, 1987

Over the years, with the birth of her second child, Eileen’s images began to take on more of an edge. From the all-embracing fecundity of the new mother there was a tension developing that mirrored more complex family relationships with their Oedipal undertow. Oppositions, perplexities and choices could all be felt in the implied and embryonic violence that some of this work suggests. The colour register also changed, it was less lush and gorgeous. There were more yellows and greens. Her palette became closer to the Brucke Expressionists showing the subliminal influence of painters such as Kirchner or Nolde. A small child lying in the mother’s palm in Gift, 1985, was not only her newborn child, but also the fragile creative self that must be continuously nurtured. This elemental split is graphically underlined in Woman bathing in her own tears, 1987, where the mermaid – a divided form, part fish and part woman – equally needs both air and water to survive. The aqueous image is a powerful one. For water is not only a medium of transformations but also a domain in which one might fatally drown.

Far too often Eileen Coopers work has been misread as decorative and easy, when in fact, the ferocity of a subliminal anger is never far from the surface. The two small children may sit trustingly on the tiger’s back in Boys and Tiger, 1991, but at any moment the animal’s patience, if tried could erupt into savagery.

The division between head and body, reason and intuition is a repeated motif throughout her work and is graphically illustrated by the emergence of a series of twins and doppelgangers. In Sisters, 1992, an image that might also refer to Demeter and Persephone – the divine mother and daughter who were also ‘twin sisters’ – one personality appears to have been parthenogenetically cloned by itself. The female figure is thus both mother to her own daughter and sister to her mother.

This attempt to locate the ego, the ‘real’ self, to maintain a balance between internal and external, between anima and animus is located in a series of images that have taken years, by Eileen Cooper’s own admission, to clarify. The male head, bursting like a seed from a ripe pod Tongue Tied 1997 reiterates the struggle of an exorcised and sublimated ghost ‘maleness’ to emerge from the enveloping prison of femininity. In Woman with Bird the androgynous figure clasps the white bird, eager for freedom, into its arms, whilst its guts – that normally visceral domain – are filled with the invasive image of a cerebral ‘male’ head. The boundaries between the chthonic elemental and ‘female’, and the ‘masculine’ lightness of mind and spirit are again blurred. A more autobiographical reading might suggest that for the artist/mother the internalised presence of growing sons intrudes into her autonomous creative space. The sense of being diminished by these young males, or threatened by their own burgeoning sexuality, which leaves the mother-figure stranded, left behind, is a theme that has echoed through much of her more recent work. Now instead of the maternal rapture in the new born infant, there is parental anxiety at the waning of adult sexuality that is all too graphically about to be usurped and surpassed by the young males incipient virility.

Eileen Cooper Gift 1985
Gift, 1985

In the 90s Eileen Cooper changed her way of working in an attempt to push out the boundaries of her own technique. Paintings done on the floor became looser and more fluid, the application of the paint less controlled and predictable. It was a way of working that she has continued to use, frequently starting a canvas on the floor before finishing it in the vertical in her strong familiar colours and monumental line.

This residency then was a major departure for an artist who has, as she said to me all those years ago when we first met, always worked from the inside out. What would an artist like her make of this collection of 17th / 18th century masters? She would need to find a new way to approach such a commission. As she worked in the gallery she began to gravitate towards paintings that allowed her to express her natural themes. She seemed drawn to painters of the Mediterranean rather than the Northern School To Guernico from Bolognia and to Pousssin, who though French, worked much of his time in Rome.

Looking at Poussin’s Triumph of David, the three women on the left slowly transmute into the three graces, illustrating how Eileen is interested in the intimate relationships between these women rather than in the history or sociology of the work. Her Woman Taken in Adultery shows the woman not so much as victim but as someone rooted and grounded in her own sense of her self. She may have lowered eyes, but particularly in the charcoal version, her expression is one of holding her own council. She seems not only separate but also more emotionally solid than the other protagonists. While in Making Mud Pies the creator is turned from a patriarchal God to a matriarch. Christ becomes a mother figure. Powerful, creative and elemental. From the mud of the earth she literally creates both actual life and art. In the blue version, the woman hunches behind a bush as if involved in some elemental private ritual. While in the red version, two figures carry what appears to be a dead woman. Is this some of funeral? A dire warning that if we are cut off four our true selves a sort of psychic death occurs? The woman in the foreground ignores the events taking place behind her and continues with her work.

Eileen Cooper The Babies 1987
The Babies, 1987

As Eileen returned to the studio the classical clothed figures from the gallery were gradually stripped bare. Tiny elements from the original paintings caught her imagination and became developed into her own hallmark works. The tree in St. Rita of Cascia for example, became pivotal in its relationship with St. Rita, who became slowly devoid of all her Catholic iconography. Here she has become more like a pagan goddess; like a flying yogi, she seems not to be reliant on supernatural powers but her own inner volition and strength. It is this theme of ‘selfhood’, of finding and developing internal strengths that is the hallmark of Cooper’s later work. Without it the creative woman will be torn apart by the warring demands, not only of others, as in Dilemma, where two small children pull her in opposite directions, but by the competing parts of herself: the mother, the creator, the sensualist. There is something of the judgement of Solomon about this painting. But here it is not the baby who is about to be pulled in two, but the mother. In Animal Instincts a branch sprouts from the woman’s backside, expressing both her playful and sensual nature, as if in defiance to all the other more demanding and responsible roles placed on her. Here the woman is shown in her dual nature. Rooted to what is animal in her psyche, yet at the same time her own rational ‘civilised’ self taken by surprise by that more hidden part of her make up. Note the hand to the mouth, the sense of shock passing across the figures face. Her body, here is a dark visceral red, linking her to all that is physical and elemental. In Guardian II and Guardian IV the monolithic female holds a tiny figure in her left hand. But the figure is not that of a child but a miniaturised woman, in fact, she bares the same face as the woman who holds her. Here again we return to the Kleinian notion of the child within. It is this ‘child’, this ‘internal self’ that has to be nurtured in order to have a creative life. Contrast this to the figure in Pastel. Here a large boy-child clings to the female figure. She clasps him with one arm but the other is raised, almost as if to shrug herself free. The boy is not a baby but clings to the mother like a too-large cuckoo who refuses to leave the nest, still needing her. She is almost unbalanced by his weight. These two works show the competing tensions in the creative life of a woman who is both a mother and an artist. In contrast, Freefall, a work that evolved from the St. Rita series and the earlier St. Rita Luxuriating, shows a woman in a dreamlike state, free floating above the landscape. Here she imagines herself cut lose from this plethora of daily demands. Maybe, we sense, there are times when she wants to be neither mother, nor artist, but desires simply to reckless and irresponsible, indulging herself. How many of us have not escaped to luxuriate and float in a bath of warm water, the door locked to the rest of the household, indulging in the sensual pleasure of our own private space.

In Family Tree and Little Sister the female protagonist has literally transmuted into a dryad, a sprit that inhabits the body of the tree. The tree is also an ancient symbol of knowledge. In Family Tree the woman is embedded in the trunk so that she and the tree have become one. It is her knowledge, her rootedness that, in the end, holds the family group, on the left together. But this would not be possible if she did not feel her own sense of ‘groundedness’ within the central core of her own nature. It is this that finally allows her to be free, to float above daily life and its conflicting demands. Above the tree, she soars, unconstrained, watchful of her family but loyal, in the end, only to her imagination: the artist.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1999

Images © Eileen Cooper 1985-1991

Art Catalogues

DLA Piper Art Award 2009

This Year’s Committee

Tony Bevan
Established British Artist

Sue Hubbard
Art Critic, Poet, Novelist and Broadcaster

Alex Dell
DLA Piper UK LLP

The Finalists

Louise Carreck
Arts Institiute, Bournemonth, BA

Kate Ive
Edinburgh College of Art, BA

Sue Morgan
Camberwell College of Arts, London, BA

Sachiyo Nishimura
Central St Martins, London, MA

Anahita Rezvani-Rad
Chelea College of Art and Design, MA

Helen Saunders
Loughborough School of Art and Design, BA


Serious Art for Serious Times

Selecting winners for art prize is a difficult business. By what criteria can such an array of diverse images, in different media, be judged? Many would argue that skill should be paramount, but whilst much of the work submitted for this year’s DLA Piper Art Award was skilful, it all too often felt thin and over decorative. Virtual worlds and computer graphics have had a huge influence both on painting and on digitally produced images, but these escapist worlds often seemed out of synch with the serious mood of the times.

Charlotte Howarth Portugese Series No. 3

Charlotte Howarth
Portugese Series No. 3

Sue Hubbard comments that:

‘The work that was finally chosen displayed not only skill and originality, but also showed an awareness of the world we live in, with its pressing struggles of war, climate change, mental health problems and globalisation. Anahita Rezvanir’s Goyaesque images and Kate Ive’s subtle installation both demonstrate a sensitivity to politics without ever being didactic, whilst Helen Saunders and Louise Carreck warn, in their uncanny images, of a dystopian future. Something, too, of the terrible beauty of industrialisation is captured in Sachiyo Nishimura’s poetic, yet spare images, while Sue Morgan’s installation, which borrows from surrealism, trawls the depth of the psyche, investigating mental fragility.

Our aim was to choose art that was not only visually engaging but that also made us think and challenged our preconceptions. We believe that this is what we have achieved with this brave new work.

This is a timely exhibition in the context of today. Modern societies have been growing and living beyond their financial and environmental needs and these young vanguards see the surrounding challenges and face them with intelligence and bravery. We hope that you will join us in supporting their achievements and future endeavours.

Exhibition at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art from 22 May to 13 June 2009

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2009

Images © Charlotte Howarth 2009

Art Catalogues

Lee Friedlander
America By Car & The New Cars 1964

Timothy Taylor Gallery 

America is the original version of modernity“.
Jean Baudrillard.

Lee Friedlander Montana 2008
Montana, 2008

To understand America you have to take to the road. America without the car is unimaginable. The American constitution might enshrine the right to bear arms, but it is the car that is the real symbol of freedom. Movement is fundamentally American. From the time the covered wagons of the Pilgrim Fathers trundled westwards, expanding the frontiers of the New World to establish their utopian communities free from religious persecution, through to the era of the Wild West cowboy, the idea of setting off for pastures new has been quintessential in defining American culture.

As the French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, put it: ‘All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behaviour. That behaviour tells you much more than you could ever learn from its political ideas. Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together’. Henry Ford made a promise to the nation. ‘I will build a car for the great multitude… it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces’. ‘Any customer,’ he added, ‘can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black’.

Lee Friedlander Mississippi 2008
Mississippi, 2008

American literature, cinema and music are peppered with stories of journeys from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, to films such as Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde and Chuck Berry’s iconic songs Route 66 or There’s no particular place to go. These have their roots in the epic ancient journeys of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. They are tales of transformation for modern times, Bildungsroman, where the hero changes and grows through the trials and tribulations of his experience. The unifying thread is always the search for the American Dream. As the tag line of Easy Rider says, ‘A man went looking for America…and couldn’t find it anywhere!’

Lee Friedlander is a man who has also gone looking for America and, in his iconic photographs, found it in its multifarious forms from the tacky and the weird to the sublime. His America by Car is a vast compendium of the country’s eccentricities, obsessions and prejudices, its wackiness and sheer beauty. In Europe the city is traditionally explored on foot. Charles Baudelaire’s Parisian flâneur is someone who walks the city in order to savour and experience it. But ‘Astral America’, according to Baudrillard, is a space of constant flux and flow, of deserts and highways going somewhere and nowhere in particular, of coca-cola signs and parking lots, of gas stations and grain silos, of pizza parlors, oil wells and grand canyons. In this sprawling chaos and emptiness that is America Lee Friedlander has used the car to mimic the act of looking through a camera. The architecture of the car – the windows, the rear-view and wing mirrors – acts as both viewfinder and frame. As the celebrated New York photographer Garry Winograd once said: ‘Putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it. A photograph is not what was photographed, it’s something else…a new world is created’.

Lee Friedlander California 2008
California, 2008

Friedlander has created, with his black-and white, square-format photographs, new worlds, like a series of film stills, images that until he chose to isolate them within the geometry of windscreen, dashboard and mirror would have gone unnoticed: the advertisement for Hot Babes, Girls That Want To Meet You, where a bikinied blonde pouts from the back of a Nevada truck, the ubiquitous little American white clapboard church, the roadside diners and plastic Santa and the vast horizons that are nowhere in particular, are all rescued from obscurity. It is like watching one of those small square 1960s black and white TVs or being a passenger in the back of Friedlander’s assorted rental cars where the passing landscape is framed by the side window, each insignificant moment given weight to create a web of discordant images that are the many faces of America. His sense of composition is laconic as well as iconic, modernist and formal as well as subversive, compassionate and witty. The country he presents is at once strange and familiar, God fearing and materialistic, modern yet somehow primitive and elemental.

His shots of shop windows in The New Cars 1964 play with veils of transparency and opacity. The reading of space is confused in these fluid images where the distinctions between reflection and reality invite multiple readings. America, these images seem to suggest, is whatever you want it to be; a dream, a chimera. Friedlander claims that he does not spend much time thinking about the process of taking photographs, that he doesn’t have a clue how they are going to turn out as there are too many variables. It is just something that he does all the time. Pictures, he says, make him realize that he is interested in something. If he had been a painter or writer he could go back and fiddle with things that were not right. But with a photograph if you go back the situation has already changed. He compares himself to an old carpenter banging in nails with ease, talking as he works. ‘Any kind of craftsman, it seems to me’, he says, ‘once they have established that they know how to do something, they do it magically’.

Lee Friedlander America By Car & The New Cars 1964 at Timothy Taylor Gallery from 1 September to 1 October 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Lee Friedlander. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Art Catalogues

Shelia Girling

Catalogue for Retrospective

Insitut Valancià d’Art Modern (IVAM Museum), Valencià
Curated by Sue Hubbard

Art runs in Sheila Girling’s veins. lt is embedded in her genes. Whilst others may have had to fight bourgeois family expectations that had them marked out as lawyers, dentists or doctors in order to become artists, Sheila Girling was always expected to become a painter. Her grandfather was a well-known Midlands artist, as were her uncle and aunt, and her father’s father was a successful London art dealer. She grew up in a comfortable middle-class household in Warwickshire, where the walls were covered with landscapes and portraits, drawings and still life. Early on her grandfather indicated to her mother that of all his grandchildren she should be the one to carry on the family’s artistic tradition for it was evident from a young age that she took a delight in drawing and painting, for which she displayed a natural aptitude. One of her early memories is of visiting her grandfather’s attic studio and being intoxicated by the strange smell. At the time she did not realise it was oil painting medium but was seduced by this slightly mysterious, magical world. She remembers him showing her a copy of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, which angered her mother, who felt it an unsuitable work for a young girl, imagining that it would frighten her. But Shelia Girling’s abiding recollection is a painterly one, of how the light fell on the recumbent figure. She wasn’t afraid, for she wasn’t aware that she was looking at a corpse.

Sheila Girling Amber Scent 1998
Amber Scent 1998

At school she became fascinated by science (an interest she appears to have passed on to her elder son who is now a professor of zoology) but was encouraged down the artistic route. She had had notions of becoming a doctor but her anxious mother was concerned about contamination from disease. So she went off to Birmingham art school at a time when art schools provided a structured and rigorous education in the craft of painting, the concept of looking and the analysis of colour. Mr. Stubbington and Fleetwood Walker ran the painting school and, although all her family had attended the Slade, Walker said he would recommend her for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art. Set in Piccadilly, the Academy, whose first president was Joshua Reynolds, had been founded in 1768 to promote the status of painting by establishing a sound system of training and arranging for the free exhibition of works of excellence.

Just after the war its studio spaces were still very empty. But for a young woman from the provinces London, despite its bombsites and smog, the food rationing and post-war drabness, was an exciting place providing access to the great museums and collections at The National Gallery and The Tate. Training in those days at the Academy was fairly academic and during her time there Girling won both the silver medal for portraiture and Proxime Accesit in the gold medal for her painting, Return of Ulysses. Her early promise was beginning to make itself felt. At school she had discovered a Penguin publication on the Camden Town School and saw that part of north London as an exotically transgressive place. Mostly she didn’t look at living artists but was, instead, drawn to Japanese and Indian art with its clear-cut images that fitted more closely with her own sensibility. Indian miniatures appealed to her innate love of colour. When at the Academy she was encouraged to look at Stanley Spencer and study Cézanne, she was also greatly moved by Rembrandt. For she found in him a profundity and a psychological honesty in the way in which he disguised nothing. Prunella Clough, who was a generation older than Girling and herself a remarkable painter, was someone whose work she also greatly admired.

lt was while at the Royal Academy that she met her husband, the distinguished sculptor Anthony Caro. lt was a habit among students to leave their drawing boards in the drawing school. One day she came to class and found him using hers. To make amends he asked her out to lunch and they started a lively discussion about art, which they have continued ever since. She jokes that their long marriage works because she is a painter and he sculptor and that they don’t tread on each other’s artistic toes. She does though, give him advice about colour and, while curating this show, Anthony Caro showed a lively, involved interest in the paintings we selected.

Sheila Girling Sitting in the Square 1991
Sitting in the Square, 1991

During her time at the Academy Sheila Girling began to experiment with cubist abstraction using her new baby as subject matter. ln 1963 Caro was invited to take over the sculpture department of Bennington College, Vermont, and his wife and two sons packed up and headed for America, where they rented a farmhouse very near to Kenneth Noland’s and Jules Olitski’s studios. The young artists met most days in one or other of these places to discuss art and hang out as young artists always have. lt was an exciting time. Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Poons and Greenberg were all frequent visitors at the weekend.

This was a period, according to the American critic Thomas McEvilley, when painting went into ‘disgrace and exile’. During the 60s it had become ‘difficult’. The reasons are both cultural and historic. One of the great questions of modernism, provoked in part by the invention of photography, was what could a painting achieve or say that could not be arrived at through any other medium? What was it that made painting unique? It was an issue that had exercised modernists since the advent of what came to be known as ‘pure painting’ in Paris in 1913. The American critic Clement Greenberg championed a Kantian view that espoused purity in painting. For him it had to be self-reflexive, self-defining and, above all, abstract with all traces of narrative removed. His views were to influence a whole generation of artists. But by the late 1960s this largely male dominated heroic idealism of pure abstraction was being challenged on both sides of the Atlantic. For many it had become an empty decorative language, just as figuration was seen as being corralled within an arena of well-worn convention. These challenges were supported by the rediscovery of Duchamp (who had a major retrospective at the Tate in 1966), by the iconoclasm of Pop, the anarchy of groups such as Fluxus and the theatrical art politics of Joseph Beuys.

This was the background against which Sheila Girling grew to maturity as a painter. lt was in America that she saw acrylic paint being used for the first time; her own more classical training had been in oils. Many painters such as Jackson Pollock were laying the canvas flat on the floor to avoid runs and create a more physical, bodily relationship to the surface. Acrylic, she noted, could be used like watercolour (she is an accomplished watercolourist, painting views and landscapes for her own pleasure when travelling or on holiday) or it could be built up thickly with gel. Acquatec and Golden paints were bringing out exciting new media all the time. A water-based medium, she watched how many of the Americans were using acrylic as a wash, almost like watercolour, and then began to experiment with mixing it herself to see what it could do, what new possibilities it could offer. When added to gel it made a transparent medium, which allowed her the freedom to cover big areas of the canvas quickly.

Sheila Girling Evening Shadow 1998
Evening Shadow, 1998

ln 1978 she went to work in clay workshop in Syracuse, New York. Margie Hughto, the ceramicist who ran it, wanted each artist to experiment and to follow his or her intuition and natural style. Girling set about painting with slips on clay slabs but soon became dissatisfied because what she was producing felt too close to painting and not related enough to the materiality of the clay. On her second visit she asked Hughto if she might incorporate colour, so they made up lumps where the colour powder medium was mixed into the clay before she started work. She had by then, she says: “much more understanding of what clay could do, and so l could work on bigger slabs. After seeing what had happened in firing the first series where grey slips had changed radically in tone and colour, l decided this time to use slips as well as coloured clays, rolling and spilling them into the tactile and malleable surfaces. The more l worked the more possibilities opened up.”

Tearing up the coloured lumps, she placed them on the natural clay slabs, which she then rolled hard onto the surface. The results evoked landscapes, both half-remembered and half-imagined from her extensive travels, and reiterated that edge she has always walked within in her paintings between abstraction and representation. The results were both surprising and exciting and led her towards what would become her dominant style, collage.

Collage first became accredited as a serious artistic practice in the first half of the 20th century when it drew its main materials from the proliferation of mass-produced newsprint, journals and advertisements that the new technologies were making readily available. The Cubists were the first to incorporate real objects -bus tickets, headlines ripped from the daily papers, café bills, etc.- into their work. These had the dual function of being both ‘real’ objects made from non-art materials, which brought with them an accumulated history of use, as well as contributing a unique visual quality to the picture surface. Later collage was given further credibility by the Futurists and the Dadaists, who used the method for their own anarchical ends. It also became a favoured technique of the Surrealists, who emphasised the juxtapositions of disparate and incongruous imagery to say something about the role of the unconscious. But it was Matisse, in his later years, when confined to his bed following two operations for duodenal cancer, who was to elevate collage to new heights. What he brought to it was his vibrant sense of colour. He instinctively understood its emotional power and range as he strove for an art of ‘balance, of purity and serenity.’ It is Matisse’s legacy that can be most clearly seen in Sheila Girling’s work.

Canada and Britain were invited to participate but soon they would come from around the globe. Girling and Caro worked there, each summer, for ten years. Because of the pressure of time Sheila Girling favoured the quick medium of watercolour on paper. One year it was decided to take the workshop to Barcelona. Much of her time in America during the 60s was spent bringing up her young children but later on at the workshop, the experience of being away from home somehow freed her and sparked a looser, more direct approach to her work. Using paper, which she ripped, tore and stuck down with glue gum, she became more deeply involved with the possibilities offered by collage. lt was to become the start of a more three-dimensional way of working. Collage allowed her to delay decisions, gave her permission not to have to get everything right in one hit. For a painter it is often hard to keep colour pure, not to muddy the paint. The use of acrylic and collage allowed her colour to remain vibrant and fresh. She was never consciously influenced by the American Abstract Expressionists, for her work has always had more control, but collage allowed her to incorporate the spontaneous gesture that was their hallmark with something more considered. While the sensuality of colour is, in her work, always paramount, the constructive process that occurs with collage is more akin to the three-dimensional dynamic of sculpture, for each cut component dictates the placement of the next piece.

Sheila Girling Confess 1994-95
Confess, 1994-95

She began to work on the floor covering the canvas in a thick white ground mixed with gel. She always has a clear idea of the predominant colour, for colour is first and foremost the key to her painterly language. She starts with a structure, which becomes looser as she works. She likens the process, with her appealing, down-to-earth candour, as being like cooking where you taste the dish as you go along. The first layers will often be put down with a squeegee mop or a broom. Then she will raise the painting (she now has an electronic device in her studio especially designed for doing this) so that she can get closer to it and begin to arrange the cut pieces of canvas on the main surface, moving them around rather like a dressmaker might fiddle with a dress pattern to get them just so. These are then stuck with heavy gel, the same medium she uses for the rest of the painting, so that it will all, she suggests rather jokingly, “rot at the same time.” Collage is a form of drawing that allows her great visual freedom. She searches for an intuitive unity within the picture, where the shapes talk and relate to one another. She is never precious when discussing her art. “You could get shape only through the actual movement of the paint and the tool,” she says. “l wanted to control the drawing more and be able to come back into a painting.” She is honest that the process is often hit-and-miss. But collage gives her a high degree of control. She can return to a painting and move the components around rather than having to resolve the problems in a single hit. Her commitment to painting is much more than simply formal; there is an evident sensual and tactile pleasure in the process, as if a form of alchemy was taking place. She could, she says, never have been a sculptor. There’s not enough sensuality or physical pleasure involved in the making.

Rich and romantic, her paintings are full not only of chromatic inflexions and lucid arenas of opaque and translucent colour but also of tension. For the imperfect edges of the collaged pieces of canvas undercut what otherwise might seem too romantic. There is a rhythm to her paint that seems to pulsate, throb, swirl and sweep rather like the improvised notes of a jazz saxophonist, her colours push against each other to establish discords, then come together to create moments of lyrical harmony. The physical presence of her layered pieces, the multiplicity of surfaces form counterpoints like those of ‘riffing’ or improvising musicians. She is not interested in what is perfect or flawless for the fragments have been cut apart and reassembled, not to create a single viewpoint or plane, but to emphasise their relationships through juxtaposition. ln the wonderful painting Sitting in the Square, 1991, a curving form of intense blue, reminiscent of that made from ground lapis lazuli used in Quattro-cento art, is interrupted by an area of duck-egg grey. A ribbon of olive green and areas of mauve-tinged pink all cluster around the main form, which is set against a yellow-brown square, which in turn has been placed on an umber ground. The work has been dictated by nothing other than a feeling for colour, an instinct for form and an unerring eye. Her working method is complex. She cuts, paints, shifts things around, subverts and then, at the last minute, often retrieves decisions to arrive at works of spatial complexity. Colour is always the point of departure, though figurative elements are often implied -a view remembered, say, or a group of figures. lf something suggests itself while making a painting, she simply goes with it.

Sheila Girling Friday Morning 2006
Friday Morning, 2006

Although a cursory glance might imply that the curved forms in The Last Supper, 2004, are abstract, careful looking will reveal them to be loosely figurative. Based on the many paintings executed throughout art history of Christ’s last meal, especially Leonardo’s masterwork, the jewel-like, vibrant colours also recall the stained glass windows of the great cathedrals where colour is silent until animated by a flood of light. Waiting Time, 2000, displays the same sensibility. The huddled figures, with their implicit halos, placed on either side of a central red divide that runs vertically through the painting, separating dark from light, make subtle reference to the two figures isolated by a pillar and enclosed beneath individual arches in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. Sheila Girling may essentially be a modernist but her influences are both ahistorical and global.

She and Tony Caro have always been enthusiastic travellers. During the decade that they maintained studios in both England and upstate New York they also travelled to India, North Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean, where the constant changes in light and space became reflected in both their bodies of work. But it was probably India that had most impact on Girling. “I came back from India and I painted all these earthy colours. It’s all earth – dry red earth tones, dull red turbans. The Indians mostly dress in white. Occasionally you see the flash of a brilliantly coloured sari, but mostly its just earth.”

For weeks after she had returned home she dreamt of the heat and dust, the hot colours. It changed her palette, which became deeper, richer and warmer. The images of the jostling crowds filled her head. In The Maharajahs, 1993, there is a tremendous sense of the physical presence of the great lumbering grey elephants pushing their way through the assembled crowds, of their swaying movement, so that for the viewer they become a sea of semi-abstract exotic decoration floating through the bustling streets.

Sheila Girling Odalisque 1992
Odalisque, 1992

Girling talks about how she found herself with collage. Essentially an abstract painter, she has always flirted with the perceived and actual world. Paintings such as Way Through, 1995, and Days like these, 1998, make reference to architecture, to doors, walls and windows, to fragments of street corners and the edge of buildings. “I was trying out a new material, a pumice-gel. When it dried, it was rough and chalky-looking and I thought it looked like a wall. Then I started looking at walls and doors. What interested me was not only walls but the whole ageing process visible on walls -the weathering and layering.” In these large set pieces her Tapies-like surfaces become spaces of possibility. These works are not direct representations but rather emotional and visual equivalents. As the poet-philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes, “nooks and corners [become] a resting place for day-dreaming.2” In his seminal Poetics of Space he tells the story of how Leonardo da Vinci advised painters to contemplate with a reflective eye the cracks in an old wall; for in them, he suggested, they would find a complete map of the universe. There is the suggestion have been witnesses to the small psychodramas of lives that have come and gone. They are screens onto which we can project our internal universes if we have a mind. For they resonate with the traces of past human activity, carry in their tactile surfaces the small histories of individual lives. Stripped away, pared down and then reconfigured, they become poetic evocations of what it means to live in a constructed world. Their colours are those of the south, of warm climates and are in contrast with her earlier soft grey tones that evoke an opalescent rain-filled English light.

Part of a generation of British women artists which has produced more than its fair share of talented abstract painters – Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow and Bridget Riley, to name but a few-Sheila Girling has, in recent years, moved to allow more directly figurative references to infiltrate her work. This appeals to her desire for both discipline and spontaneity. She enjoys translating the observed world and abstracting components from it as and when she needs them. Friday Morning, 2005, and Still Life with Salmon and Still Life with Lobster, 2000, are all abstract elements of actual objects, which are then arranged like pieces of collage on the picture surface. Simply painterly components like colour or her cut-out asymmetrical shapes, they add to her range of painterly language and describe her relationship with the tactile world of touch and sight, smell and taste. For her everything feeds everything else; whether she is cutting up a fish or making a painting, it is all part of the sensual pleasure of being alive.

During the last century the fortunes of painting have waxed and waned. ln the 80s painting returned from the exiled territory into which it had been all but banished, though it returned with an ironic bravura, full of pastiche, nuanced quotations, and a tendency towards strutting exhibitionism. To quote Thomas McEvilley again: “As if to demonstrate its awareness of past sins, it returned with a self-critical manner. As if to redress its former arrogance, it returned with self-mockery. As if to offset its former elitism and Puritanism, it returned in a costume of rags collected from everywhere. It returned as Conceptual painting and found a variety of new uses for the medium.” While it could be argued that Sheila Girling’s paintings are built out of that ultimate post-modernist symbol, the fragment, her sensibility and integrity have remained largely untouched by fashion. She has continued to paint her lyrical, luminous paintings, inspired primarily by a love of colour and the things she perceives in the natural world, regardless of post-modern irony or reflexive self-consciousness. Her paintings are modest and ambitious, authentic and imaginative, but above all they are true to the sensual delight she originally discovered as a young girl, when her grandfather decided she should carry on the family’s artist mantle. They are, first and foremost, about the joy of painting.

Sheila Girling Retrospective at Insitut Valancià d’Art Modern (IVAM Museum), Valencià from 26 April to 11 June 2006

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2006
Images © Shelia Girling 1991-2006

Art Catalogues

Nigel Hall
The Spaces Between

Catalogue for the Exhibition at Annely Juda Fine Art

…at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.

Burnt Norton. T.S. Eliot

Nigel Hall’s studio is a sanctuary of calm. An old church hall in Balham, with high ceilings, white walls and good light, it provides a still point in a perpetually moving and chaotic world. Nigel Hall does not use email, Facebook or Google. Not for him the overload of information that pours relentlessly down our technological highways. His notebooks – the same black linen ones he has used for years -sit neatly on the shelves of his office next to his work room; a continuous record of nearly five decades of observation. These form a visual diary and include measurements, objects and shapes that have caught his interest; lists and evocative phrases, landscapes and Swiss views. Every winter for eighteen years he has gone to the same hotel in the Engadine near the Italian border, overlooking a large and, usually, frozen lake. The region with its soaring mountains, which he draws in different weather conditions and at different times of day, has provided a good deal of inspiration, along with the bell tower in the nearby village of Soglio, which infiltrates over and over again as a defining vertical motif within his work. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Giacometti, who was born in nearby Borgonovo, is an artist Hall reveres.

Nigel Hall Chinese Whispers II 2007
Chinese Whispers II, 2007

Hall is a craftsman. His sculpture is made by hand with the sort of skill and care learnt from his grandfather, a stone mason, who once restored West Country churches and cathedrals, in a manner that would not have been unfamiliar to Thomas Hardy. This legacy of carving has left its stamp, for carving is a slow business. The chisel cut, as he says, “will, at one and the same time, make a line, an edge and a shadow. [This] has resulted in a preoccupation with linearity, precision, light and shadow and spatial interval.” Carving draws a line through space to create an edge where dark meets light and the outside connects with the inside. Hall prepares his designs on paper and then traces them onto plywood to create skeletal armature-like Balsa wood models. One imagines that as a boy he must have enjoyed making model aeroplanes and that, if stuck on that proverbial desert island, he would be able to build a canoe. Touch and an intuitive physical relationship with his materials are central to his work. He does not have assistants except, occasionally, to help him lift work that is too heavy for one man to manoeuvre.

The poetics of space and the articulation of its geometry form the language of his sculpture and drawings: outer and inner, surface and interior, containment and release. In his essay The Dialectics of Outside and Inside Gaston Bachelard considers how: “outside and inside are both intimate – they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility”. He suggests that, “the centre of ‘being-there’ wavers and trembles. Intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void, void being the raw material of possibility of being”. The space that Bachelard is referring to is, of course, both philosophical and measurable, both psychological and physical. For Bachelard, as for Hall, actual space becomes a metaphor for human experience; for our relationships to the world and to others in it. At its most fundamental it reveals, by contrast, what is ‘I’ and what is ‘other’. Yet as Bachelard suggests, nothing that truly concerns intimacy can be shut in and completely contained. Inside and outside are permeable. Nigel Hall’s sculptures consider surface; surfaces that both enclose and separate, that define the ‘self’ in relationship to the ‘not-self’. Meaning resides in the dialectics between what is hidden and revealed, what is open and closed.

Nigel Hall Chinese Whispers XII 2010
Chinese Whispers XII, 2010

Hall’s interest in poetry is underlined by his series of ‘book drawings’ based on the writings of such poets as Hart Crane, Walt Whitman and e. e. cummings. In these a web of diagonal lines, created using carbon paper and a dried-up ballpoint pen, link the beginnings and ends of stanzas. Although he considers his drawing and sculpture as distinct practices, his finely poised sculptures often feel akin to drawings in space. Essentially he is a Romantic in that his inspiration so often begins in landscape. “My work has always been about place,” he says. “I am fascinated by the way geometry can be discerned in landscape.” This was illustrated to dramatic effect by the siting of his sculptures in a recent show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. His language is essentially abstract, though rooted in the real, particularly the rhythms of the natural world, while his grammar consists of circles, cones and ellipses that enclose and occupy space to reveal light and shadow. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that Oriental art and Japanese culture, particularly its gardens, architecture and printmaking, have been a considerable influence. Hall has often visited Japan. His sketch books are full of drawings of the grids made by the logs of pearl fishers’ rafts or of rope knots tied around a tree at a Japanese shrine. Like that spare poetic form, the haiku, his works are simply what they are; yet they are also much more than is, apparently, revealed. As with all successful minimal art and poetry, what is left out is as vocal as what is retained. Absence speaks volumes. A still silence forms the central core to these works.

Born in Bristol in 1943, Hall was a war baby. His perceptions were profoundly influenced by his parents’ stories about bombing raids on the Bristol docks. Freeze I and II, student works of the mid-Sixties, capture these anxieties and spring from an incident witnessed by his mother during a raid when a bomb shook a window and the curtains were sucked out and left flapping by the blast. In these early works Hall attempted to encapsulate space, to create a potent sense of inner and outer, and an impression of the void hidden behind the walls of these surreal, Martello Tower-like structures.

Nigel Hall Mirrored 2009
Mirrored, 2009

The music of Miles Davis and time spent in the Mojave Desert in southern California during the late Sixties also had a lasting effect, providing him with a route into abstraction. That boundless, empty landscape, with only the occasional water tower or telegraph pole protruding from the horizon, provided a new lexicon of images. Soda Lake, 1968 was his initial response: a foretaste of a sparer, more minimal art, in which “space and its components determine how the space is channelled, trapped or disclosed”.

Included in this current show of sculptures and drawings from 2007-2011 are Chinese Whispers II, 2007 made in polished wood and Chinese Whispers III, 2010 and Chinese Whispers X, 2009, made in bronze. Titles are important to Hall and this one suggests the way in which one work influences and transmutes into another, keeping modified elements which gradually metamorphose as in the game of Chinese Whispers. Everything is always the same, yet different. As Heraclitus understood, a man can never step into the same river twice for neither the river nor the man remain the same. Despite their abstract form there is something body-like about the looped spaces of these works that seem to inflate and conflate like lungs drawing breath. As in many of the drawings, with their dense black charcoal forms that intertwine with tendrils and knots of coloured gouache, the lines touch and pull apart in a play of intimacy and withdrawal. Skeins, knots and twists suggest both circularity and connection. As T. S. Eliot writes in Burnt Norton:

Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.

Drawing no: 1505 2009
Drawing no: 1505, 2009

Ends and beginnings, doubles and shadows, the past and the present. As in the beautiful and tender Shadowed, 2008 where one form nestles like a memory inside the other in perpetual co-existence, Hall acknowledges Eliot’s claim that only by ‘form’ and ‘pattern’ can art reach a point of stillness. Since 1984, Hall’s sculptures have become more dense, solid and grounded. In his elegant birch veneer pieces, in which the surface is covered in a white stain coated with a clear, water-based lacquer and polished with wax, or in his black patinated bronzes, a subtle pairing and doubling often occurs. Though the language is abstract, his forms precipitate emotions concerning relationships and associations.

Through a distillation of careful thought and long practice these quietly meditative works evoke a sense of calm and order. The observer’s mood is constantly subverted and challenged. Vistas open and close, invite and exclude like changing views within a mountainous landscape. There is a feeling here of fullness and emptiness, of stillness and movement, as if all opposites are contained within the whole. For to quote Heraclitus again: “Couples are wholes and not wholes, what agrees disagrees; the concordant is discordant. From all things one and from one all things”.

Nigel Hall The Spaces Between at Annely Juda Fine Art from 31 Mar to 13 May 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Nigel Hall 2007-2010

Art Catalogues

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.

Rachel Howard Fantasy Structure (Pink) 2006
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.

Rachel Howard Fantasy Structure (Red) 2006
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.

Rachel Howard Visual Memory No Green 2006
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.

Rachel Howard Visual Memory No Green 2006
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

Art Catalogues

Jason Martin

Full Catalogue available from the Lisson Gallery

Falls the Shadow

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
Edgar Degas

In the 1950s the critic, Harold Rosenberg, famously wrote that “the painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of that encounter.” 1More than half a century later this definition of abstract painting, which may now seem obvious to an insouciant 21st audience, still holds true. “What matters always”, Rosenberg continued, “is the revelation contained in that act.” This implies that painting has something unique to reveal, that hidden in its depths is some innate truth that can, through the relationship between the artist’s ‘doing’ and the viewer’s perceptive looking, heighten our awareness of what it means to be in the world. But the question remains for a painter, in a society where image and notoriety have become ubiquitous and the word ‘revelation’ has an almost archaic ring that suggests some sort of pseudo-religious experience, how to make the inert plasticity of paint and material ‘speak’ and what, in a period more concerned with sound bites than the unmasking of subtle verities, these might say?

Jason Martin Behemoth 2012
Behemoth, 2012

Painting as sculpture, sculpture as painting. This dialogue forms one of the central debates within this exhibition. As Donald Judd argued in his famous essay on Specific Objects: “all paintings are spatial in one way or another … anything spaced in a rectangle and on a plane suggests something in and on something else, something in its surround, which suggests an object or figure in its space … that’s the main purpose of painting.” 2. On entering the Lisson Gallery we are confronted by the 3×3 meter cube of Behemoth, 2012, more than 2.6 meters high, made of 1.5 tons of virgin cork – that is cork from the tree’s first shedding – which has been coloured a deep dense black. Jason Martin has a studio in Portugal and spends a good deal of his time working there. Cork, therefore, is a familiar and vernacular material. 140 kilos of ivory black were suspended in a water based medium, with not much binder. As a result the pigment seems to vibrate on the surface of the cork, yet has also soaked into it to become an integral element. Built up in layers, like an interlocking pantile roof, this imperfect cube sits in the middle of the gallery floor like something burnt or charred. There is a suggestion of the alchemical and the transformative, of something elemental rising from the ashes. What is lightweight is given the illusion of heaviness. What appears to have been destroyed or damaged suggests the possibility of renewal. The form resonates with an interior life as fugitive light that is trapped within is filtered through the crevices to create a tension between the outer surface and the hidden interior. Here the language of painting and the language of sculpture coalesce.

Jason Martin Infinite at Lisson Gallery from 11 May to 23 June 2012

1 Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978) from: The American Action Painters. Originally published in Art News, LI, NY, Dec. 1952, pp.22ff. Reprinted in Rosenberg The Tradition of the New, NY, 1959.
2 Donald Judd (b.1928) ‘Specific Objects’. First published in Arts Yearbook, 8, NY, 1965, pp.74-82; reprinted in Judd Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax Nova Scotia, 1975.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012

Images © Jason Martin 2012. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Art Catalogues

Zara Matthews
Chambre

Catalogue Essay for Emma Hill Fine Art Eagle Gallery

…an empty shell, like an empty nest, invites day-dreams of refuge
Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space

Zara Mathews Inner and Outer World 2011
Inner and Outer World, 2011

A room in a converted chapel is visited by a woman on a journey back through northern France. She arrives in the dark. As dawn breaks the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, the window with its iron handle that looks out onto an old village barn, the heavy armoire, the lamps and gilded mirror all reveal themselves, cautiously, like shadows emerging from the fog of a dream. Paintings suggest stories, other worlds. Like mirrors they reveal many possibilities.

Chambre: the French word is like a breath, a whisper. The room is a world that time has forgotten; a world redolent with other lives that have passed through and left their marks like pale ghosts. It is as if the woman has always known this place; has, in some sense, returned home. In the short time that is left before departure she absorbs this faded interior as the light slowly changes: the blue glass bowl and Wedgewood plaques on the mantelpiece beside the brass candle stick, the ultramarine bed sheet tangled after a night of sleeplessness, the blueness of which, in the pearly dawn, glows like the Madonna’s robes in a quattrocento painting, a time when lapis lazuli from the distant mountainous mines of Afghanistan was more precious than gold. It is as if each object has slipped from fact to dream and acts as a trigger into the remembrance of things lost and past.

Zara Mathews Surfacing 2011
Surfacing, 2011

The room draws her in. Instinctively she recognises it for, like Virginia Woolf who spoke in her famous Girton lecture about the importance of women having a space to work and dream, she understands its significance. It is a place to think, to be entirely herself, however briefly, away from the demands of daily life; a place of reverie and primal safety. For artists such as Van Gogh and Gwen John the rooms they inhabited, the rooms they painted, represented not only freedom from bourgeois constraints but also became metaphors of their souls, their psychic core as artists. Gwen John’s empty wicker chair in her little attic reflects her sense of loneliness that was to become the spur to her creative impulse, just as the empty bed in Zara Matthews’ paintings, becomes the catalyst for a whole new series of work.

Set out in the shape of the actual room the paintings form a conversation each with the other. Objects that occur in one canvas are echoed like a continuing thought in the next. Time is the predominant element which ties these works together, as in Monet’s Haystacks or Rouen Cathedral series. The deep blues and greens seen in the early first light are later saturated by the morning sun to become pink and gold. That these paintings grew from photographs is no coincidence. The Latin term, camera obscura, means a darkened chamber or room. To take photographs is to engage with the passing of time. For when the camera shutter closes it traps each moment, as in aspic, so that it can never be truly revisited except through nostalgia.

Zara Mathews Annunciation Untitled V 2011
Annunciation Untitled V, 2011

Longing and desire are among the most profound human urges. They form the the theme of much great literature and art: Rilke’s poetry, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and that quintessential French novel of yearning, Alan Fournier’s Le Grand Meulnes, while the Impressionists understood, as no other painters, the impossibility of fixing a single moment in time within the constant flux and shimmer of light. Here, in these haunting, meticulously rendered paintings, Zara Matthews creates a series of epiphanal moments, dialogues between colour, tone and shade, light and dark, photography and painting. La chambre becomes a place of refuge, a shelter, a womb into which the artist retreats to re-nourish the creative imagination in order to reach out and create new dreams.

Zara Mathews Chambre at Emma Hill Fine Art Eagle Gallery from 16 September to 21 October 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Zara Mathews 2011. Courtesy of Emma Hill Fine Art Eagle Gallery

Art Catalogues

Ishbel Myerscough
Life

Catalogue for the Exhibition at Flowers

Ishbel Myerscough Red Bedroom 2003
Red Bedroom, 2003

“All the world’s a stage” says the melancholy Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It; a mere play where men and women act out their lives from infancy through to a second childhood “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”. The division of human life into a series of ages was a commonplace of art and literature in Shakespeare’s time. The number of ages varied: three and four being the most common among ancient writers such Aristotle. This almost imperceptible trajectory from innocence to encroaching decline is explored in Ishbel Myerscough’s series of five paintings, which begins with her cherubic two year old daughter and is followed by paintings of her six and nine year old sons, her adolescent niece and her husband. Although each work captures the individual model, together they add up to more than the sum of their parts; a metaphor for life and the passing of time. Standing to attention at the apparent seriousness of his task, is her six year old son, Fraser, in his little pants, his ribs clearly visible on his still fragile frame, while her nine year old, Herb, is more assertive; feet splayed and shoulders squared up to the viewer as if already touched by the first stirrings of adolescence. In contrast, her niece, Lily, with her golden Pre-Raphaelite locks, stands in flowered shorts on the cusp of a burgeoning sexuality like some modern day Primavera. Whilst her husband, the tallest and thinnest, is painted from the side with minimal information – reminiscent of one of Giacometti’s elongated figures – as if already disappearing.

Ishbel Myerscough Yellow Dress 2009
Yellow Dress, 2009

To be a painter, a figurative painter and a portraitist to boot, might be considered as anachronistic as writing on vellum rather than on a laptop. Yet however often painting is pronounced dead, supposedly killed off by the ubiquity of photography, Ishbel Myerscough mines a fertile seam, embraced by other contemporaries such as Chantal Joffe and Jenny Saville, of intimate, truthful and, at times, uncomfortable paintings that reveal something of the inner world of her subjects. It was Oscar Wilde who perceptively observed that: ‘Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter’, and this must surely be considered the case with all successful modern figure painters from John Minton and Lucien Freud to Alice Neel. It is this disclosure, this frank dialogue of emotional exchange between artist and subject that colours Ishbel Myerscough’s work.

As a woman painting the figure she subverts the traditional gaze of the male artist towards the female subject. Her pairings of women lying together naked on a bed, or standing intimately close, as in her self-portrait with her close friend Chantal Joffe when both are heavily pregnant, explore the thin line in female friendships between warmth and intimacy and eroticism.

In these subtle, poetically spare paintings Myerscough reveals much more than the photographic likeness of her subjects. The haunted eyes of the mother clasping her child in Misery, 2006, painted soon after the death of her father, are imbued with something of the expressionistic anxiety and naked truth to be found in Munch.

Ishbel Myerscough Life at Flowers, London from 1 June to 25 June 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Ishbel Myerscough 2003-09

Art Catalogues

Alice Neel
Men Only

Catalogue for the Exhibition at Victoria Miro

Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.
Oscar Wilde

… if I hadn’t been an artist, I could have been a psychiatrist.
Alice Neel

In his seminal book Ways of Seeing John Berger famously asserts that ‘men act and women appear’. Men look at women, while women watch themselves being looked at. This determines, he suggests, not only the relations between men and women but also the relationship women have with themselves. And, one might add, it conditions the way in which women, who are used to being looked at, look at men. One of the concerns of feminism in the 1960s and 70s was to reclaim the female body from its imprisonment in art as a beautiful, mute object judged by male spectators. The traditional relationship between model and artist depicted in Picasso’s Vollard suite of etchings shows the powerful artist-god clasping his naked, vulnerable lover-model in his arms. The image seems to support Renoir’s claim (one that could have been made by many other male artists) that: “I paint with my prick”. So what does it mean for a woman to paint images of men, reversing the normal relationship between subject and observer? What is it that she is painting?

Alice Neel Dorothy Pearlstein 1973
Dorothy Pearlstein, 1973

Alice Neel was a pioneer, a representational painter of people, landscapes and still life in an era dominated in the US by the essentially masculine language of Abstract Expressionism. Clement Greenberg, the high priest of formalism, had insisted that the canvas be freed of all personal narrative, autobiography and literary content. Influenced by Expressionism and Realism, Neel overtly disobeyed this Modernist mantra. Against the background of this heroic male vision, with its gestural mark-making where, as the critic Harold Rosenberg claimed, “the painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind [note the masculine form,] but went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him”, Neel intuitively sought to make sense of the world through an essentially female gaze; one that encompassed emotion, the body and personal experience. Life was her subject. She painted people and, in so doing, unmasked the complexities of their psyches, penetrating the careful carapaces constructed to protect them from public scrutiny. She probed and prodded until she revealed her subject’s soft inner core. As she said “… I decided to paint a human comedy – such as Balzac had done in literature… I painted the neurotic, the mad and the miserable… I am a collector of souls.”

Success came late to Neel. In her forty year career she exhibited only intermittently and, then, mostly in unknown galleries in group shows sympathetic to left wing causes. In an era where realist painting was seen as hopelessly outdated, Jack Kroll, the then critic of Newsweek, called her “an old pagan priestess somehow overlooked in the triumph of a new religion”. Under the mantle of that ubiquitous new religion, Abstract Expressionism, an art work was not so much, as Rosenberg explained, “a picture but an event”. Neel was not against abstraction; indeed, many of the painters she most admired were abstractionists and her lose brush marks and nervy application of colour attest to their influence, but she could not stand that abstraction had, as she put it, “pushed all the other pushcarts off the streets.” “For me,” she said, “people come first… I think I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being in my portraits… every sitter is a new universe, unique with its own laws emphasising some belief, a phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by.”

Alice Neel John Perreault 1972
John Perreault, 1972

Yet her own life was largely coloured by artistic invisibility, personal trauma and poverty. Having lost her first daughter, Santillana, to diphtheria, she then lost her second, Isabetta, to her Cuban husband, the volatile painter Carlos Enríquez, who took her to visit his parents, never to return her to Neel’s care. These profound losses, a nervous breakdown, along with a penchant for erratic unstable men and a burning compulsion to paint, created an innate turbulence at the centre of Neel’s life, which by most accepted standards was raw, dysfunctional and a mess. Despite the subsequent birth of two young sons, Richard and Hartley, she seemed unable to leave the mutually destructive, co-dependent relationship she formed with Sam Brody, a prickly, difficult and talented documentary filmmaker, even though he physically abused and bullied both her boys, whom she appears to have done little to protect. Yet, it could be argued that like the therapist who embraces the role of the ‘wounded healer’, Alice Neel’s traumas and psycho-dramas fed her creative energy and provided her with a unique insight into the inner lives of her subjects. In the 1940s she moved from the artistic milieu of Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem in search of somewhere cheaper and more ‘authentic’ to live and work. It was while domicile there that she caught, on canvas, the innate anxieties of the area’s immigrants and the psychological vulnerabilities of its vagrants, artists, writers and children in a series of candid, compassionate, yet uncompromising portraits.

Alice Neel Marxist Girl 1972
Marxist Girl, 1972

Despite being a long time supporter of women’s rights, Neel had little time for essentialist feminist attitudes or, for that matter, for other women whom she mostly saw as rivals. A sensualist who liked men, a committed Communist and one of life’s natural outsiders, it was through the class struggles and racially based oppression that clouded the lives of so many women that Neel best related to others of her own sex. She painted a number of strong women, including the feisty Dorothy Pearlstein, 1973 and Irene Peslikis in Marxist Girl, 1972 in which Peslikis sits in a purple chair, her arm raised above her head to reveal a defiantly hairy arm pit.

It was in his essay Civilisation and its Discontents that Freud noted the philosopher-poet, Schiller’s observation “that the mechanism of the world was held together by “hunger and love””. Hunger and love might be said to elide in the work of Alice Neel; a hunger to embrace the totality of her fractured self, along with a love of the vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies perceived in fellow human beings, with whom she identified. Her paintings of men not only embrace her subjects’ essential male ‘otherness’, but mirror back conflicted aspects of herself. Her males are both vulnerable – as in her insightful portrait of Andy Warhol where this notoriously controlling artist reveals his ravaged, androgynous body to her gaze – yet also assertively ‘themselves’ as in her 1935 heroic depiction of Pat Whalen, a committed communist and the union organiser for the longshoremen of Balitimore. As the British Kleinian, John Steiner wrote in Psychic Retreats, 1993: “a part of the self is split off and projected into an object, where it is attributed to the object and the fact that it belongs to the self is denied. The object relationship which results is then not with a person truly seen as separate, but with the self projected into another person and related to as if it were someone else.”

Alice Neel Ned McCabe 1964
Ned McCabe, 1964

In many of Neel’s male studies there is something of a role reversal going on for she was, in her own way, just as voyeuristic as many male artists. In the ten portraits included in Men Only we are presented with a variety of attitudes from the erotic to the ironic. In her 1957 portrait of Phil Bard, a well-known left-wing artist and cartoonist whose relatively crude drawings for communist magazines such as the Daily Worker owe something to the work of Georg Grosz, Neel presents him with a wry gaze and a quizzical tilt of the head, no doubt revealing his preference for being the one to create caricatures rather than, as here, being caricatured. In contrast, her 1965 portrait of the young artist Richard Gibbs, whom Neel befriended in Spring Lake, New Jersey, takes an obvious delight in painting this blonde young man in the nude. Whilst Neel doesn’t actually portray his genitals, as she did in her 1972 painting of the art critic John Perrault who reclines like Manet’s Olympia on a bed of white sheets, Gibb’s raised knee poking from beneath the table brings attention to his hidden crotch and functions as a substitute penis, leaving us in no doubt that this is a painting of erotic desire. More disquieting is the 1973 portrait of her son Richard standing barefoot in a green garden, a white towel wrapped around his naked hips, his gaze averted, his shoulders stiff and his fists anxiously clenched. It is a reminder that Neel had little compunction about sexualising her own offspring in her work as in the remarkably frank portrait of her estranged six year old daughter Isabetta (who was later to commit suicide) painted while on a rare visit from Cuba in 1934, which expresses both the intimacy and tension within that damaged mother daughter relationship. Whilst her 1971 painting of her younger son, Hartley, dressed in a blue shirt and white slacks, again sitting with a raised knee protruding into the left hand corner of the canvas, shows him unable to meet her gaze, as if caught in an act of sexual exposure.

Alice Neel Randall in Extremis 1960
Randall in Extremis, 1960

Like many struggling artists, Randall Bailey worked as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Born in Texas he made his way to New York where Neel painted him twice. While the first portrait is fairly conventional this version, painted in 1960, captures his extreme agitation. The flowing lines of his body and balding head conjure Munch’s The Scream and emphasis his mental instability. In contrast, her 1968 portrait of John Evans shows a confident, dapper artist in cravat and blue jacket, his feet shod in Spanish boots, his legs and arms crossed in an authoritative, self-confident pose. On many occasions Neel used her sons’ friends as models. Purvis, a classmate of Hartley’s at High Mowing School, a private, Rudolph Steiner boarding school in New Hampshire, was about seventeen when he posed for Alice who, unusually, simply named the painting with his surname. Ed Ziff was majoring in Chemistry at Columbia and was a classmate of Hartley’s, since becoming a distinguished Biochemist specialising in neurobiology at the Skirball Institute at New York University Medical School, while Stephen Herbert, a doctor in Vermont, was also a colleague of Hartley Neel.

For the most part Alice Neel painted direct from the model. Not concerned with photographic accuracy her colours are unnatural and expressionistic, the hands of her subjects often elongated, their bodies contorted and the eyes asymmetrical. The truth that emerges is not a simple physical truth, but something deeper, closer to the insights acquired during the psychoanalytic process. Her portraits are investigations into her sitter’s state of being; two way mirrors in which the subject reflects back the concerns of the painter, while the artist absorbs the subject’s moods, mannerisms and vulnerabilities. Complex and mercurial, her portraits refuse single readings and contain multiple realities. As Frank Auerbach said of her portraits: “it seems that, the more stressful the sitting, the better the painting.”

To sit for Neel was a challenging process; an intimate conversation between sitter and artist in paint, a process of revelation and discovery, of coming into being, where both the subject and the artist were brought face to face with their own innate and very human imperfections.

Alice Neel Men Only at Victoria Miro from 8 June to 29 July 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Alice Neel 1960-1974

Art Catalogues

Hughie O’Donoghue
Fiume

Catalogue for the Exhibition at Purdy Hicks
Immersion: Hughie O’Donoghue’s recent paintings of the human figure

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance.

Roads’, Edward Thomas

To be a painter at the beginning of the 21st century requires courage. For painting has been declared as dead as Nietzsche’s God, irrelevant as a medium of expression in this fast moving, ‘lets-have-it-all-now’ age. Of course there are many young painters who have made their names within the new postmodern orthodoxy, using shock and irony or a discussion of the language of paint as their primary tools but there can be few who have so seriously engaged with history and the painterly canon as Hughie O’Donoghue.

Hughie O'Donoghue Fiume I: Over the Sangro 2004
Fiume I: Over the Sangro, 2004

O’Donoghue freely intermingles the mythic and the real, mixing events from history with a sense of personal quest to create grand, encompassing statements that deal with the universal, something attempted by few other contemporary painters, except, perhaps, the German artist, Anselm Kiefer. His subjects are archetypal: war, memory, time and what it means to be human, to define the trajectory of a life. Historic events act as catalysts; but it would be a mistake to suggest that he is either a narrative or a modern-day history painter. Rather his work explores the past, using the wanderings of a soldier – his father Daniel O’Donoghue – as he travels through the ravaged war-torn zones of Europe with the retreating forces during the Fall of France in 1940 and the crossing of the Rapido in the 1944 Battle of Monte Casino. In fact all O’Donoghue’s works essentially add up to one master work; a journey of self-discovery of almost Wagnerian proportions. He draws parallels with the “classic epic poem with the inpidual pictures functioning like chapters, verses or lines.”

Born in Manchester of Irish descent, Daniel O’Donoghue chronicled his war experiences in letters home to his wife and was, himself, no mean writer. But these paintings are not a sentimental homage to a father, or even a Freudian investigation of their relationship, for as Hughie O’Donoghue says – “we disapproved of each other for most of our lives”. Rather Daniel’s war experiences become emblematic of every soldier’s, taking on the mantle of the universal Everyman, who, as James Hamilton noted in his monograph on O’Donoghue “walked through European literature and history in the various guises of Piers Ploughman, Christian, Candide and the Unkown Soldier”. It is his spirit that lingers in this work, so that each painting takes on an epic timelessness, acting as “passing-bells for these who died[d] as cattle”, as the poet Wilfred Owen described the fate of the invisible young men, the Unknown Soldiers sent from every corner of Suffolk and Somerset, Cornwall and Co. Durham to fight in the Great war, and for all those who have since fallen prey to the politicians’ lies on the front lines in Vietnam, Kosovo or Iraq, with the phrase dulce et decorum et pro patria mori, ringing in their youthful ears.

Hughie O'Donoghue Fiume II: Swollen Water 2004
Fiume II: Swollen Water, 2004

As did the War Poets Owen and Sassoon, Hughie O’Donoghue universalises from the particular to reveal what Owen called ‘the pity of war’. Essentially the recall of particular historic moments becomes a means of investigating and defining a spiritual and moral outlook within the modern world. His work is about many things, but it is certainly a reminder that war is, in its various guises, always with us and not something that can be consigned to the territory of ‘the past’; though his meanings remain complex and paradoxical, never offering didactic conclusions or resolutions. Rather we follow his travels, like a modern-day Christian from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, through a landscape of memory, art, love and spirituality in an investigative act of self- realisation, a meditation that explores the shadows and plumbs the depths of the creative imagination. What he reveals along the way is not only the profound pathos of war where every young soldier is left alone to stare death in the face, but also the essential existential struggle of the inpidual attempting to construct meaning through life’s solitary journey. It is not that he is ignorant of, or has particularly turned his back on the avant-garde, he is after all a graduate of that postmodern hothouse, Goldsmith’s, but rather that he looks to the great artistic traditions of the past, to Titian and Géricault and more recently to Cézanne and de Kooning to find a symbolic language with which he can create epic elegies to the human condition. There is, also, in these works a democratising desire for directness and simplicity. A fundamental belief that his audience should identify with his work on a visceral level; to this end he edits out what is superfluous. What is left is an emotional core that is timeless. It is against the painterly tradition of the past that O’Donoghue pits himself, attempting to find a relevant, re-invigorated painterly language that is neither sentimental nor reliant on pastiche.

The human figure remains a constant. In the Sleeper series of the mid 80s, haunting presences appeared in his deep rich canvases as abstract shapes like cleft fissures in rock or the S-shaped remains of mummified figures buried in the peat bogs of Ireland recalled in the poems of Seamus Heaney. Embedded in the earth they are both female receptacle and procreating phallus. Buried in the deep dark they have been returned to the element from which they came, so that there is the implicit suggestion that they will, in due time, like the poppies of Flanders field, flower and regenerate.

In my beginning is my end.” 1

Hughie O'Donoghue Fiume III: The Po Waits for You 2004
Fiume III: The Po Waits for You, 2004

The falling figure, the buried figure, the swimming figure. Earth, air, fire, water. Baptism, transformation, death. These fundamental elementals, which run both through Pagan myth and Christianity, form the backbone of O’Donoghue’s hugely ambitious paintings. We are invited at one and the same time to think of Icarus and the immersion of John the Baptist; of Mary Renault’s dying King whose ritual killing formed part of a necessary regenerative cycle; of Grauballe and Tollund Man discovered in the 1970s excavations of Danish peat bogs, buried for thousands of years before exhumation, as well as the ordinary, unexceptional and terrified solders swimming in their water-laden battle fatigues across the fast flowing Rapido. Immersion returns as a theme, again and again, running through these paintings like the refrain from a Greek chorus, like the course of the Rapido itself; a metaphor for renewal, for baptism, for a transformation of sorts.

A shocking newspaper clip, pinned to the studio wall of a figure falling from one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, along with a postcard of a sculpture of Marsays, made famous in Titian’s late painting The Flaying of Marsyas, when the impudent satyr was skinned alive for his audacious act of challenging Apollo to a musical contest, which he lost, also contribute to the palimpsest of O’Donoghue’s imagery.

Daniel O’ Donoghue was a keen photographer and among his post-war effects was a photograph of a 1930s art deco bronze diver in the Fascist style. It is this image that is seminal to Hughie O’Donoghue’s Diver series, along with the 9/11 skydiver and the Marsyas, a postcard of which was found among Daniel’s wartime possessions, inscribed on the back with only an ambiguous question mark, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the photograph that was also found among Daniel’s things of Mussolini and his collaborators hung, in an act of reprisal, by their ankles from a garage roof. When crossing the Rapido Daniel lost his flute and the symbol of silenced music, of the lost voices of the young men who perished, create a potent sub-text, a metaphorical synchronicity that meshes together both myth and recent history with a father’s experiences and a son’s artistic appropriations and transformations.

Hughie O'Donoghue Fiume IV: Remember the Rapido 2004
Fiume IV: Remember the Rapido, 2004

The Rapido River was already notorious before May 11th, for the American 36th division had experienced a disaster there in the previous January. Using as a touchstone the archive of letters, photographs and the ephemera that he inherited after his father’s death, Hughie O’Donoghue embarked on his first figures in water around 1998. Drawn in graphite wash on cotton canvas prepared with gesso they hover like x-rays or ectoplasmic wraths, emerging from the dark mass of graphite like half-forgotten memories. Crossing the Rapido IV, 1999-2000 melds the Mussolini photograph and the suspended Marsyas with an image created from the photograph of a badly burnt German solider. Here the cruelty and ‘pity of war’ are exposed as an ever present coda that runs from the ancient world through to the modern.

To dive into the waters is to search for the secret of life, the ultimate mystery. J.C. Copper in the Encyclopaedia of traditional symbols.

During a trip to Naples in October 2001, to research the locations of his father’s wartime photographs, O’Donoghue made a visit to Paestum where his attention was arrested by the Tomb of the Diver (circa BC 480) discovered by archaeologists in the 1960s. In this small tomb painting of remarkable clarity a lithe simmer is seen diving from a high board, in fact, the Pillars of Hercules, which represent the end of the known world. The iconography of this ancient painting, the falling figure from the twin towers and his father’s warm time photographs meld into a matrix from which to explore fate and the human need to direct one’s destiny, to achieve a transcendence of spirit.

The actual inhabitant of the tomb seems to have died in the great sea battle of Salamis between the Greeks and the Persians. O’Donoghue employs what art historians refer to as Ekphrasis – that is the recreation of a lost or ancient work from classical times, as in Titian’s cycle of paintings for Alphonson d’Este, of which Bacchus and Ariadne, housed in the National Gallery, is an example. It is not that he is aiming for arcane erudition but rather that his images become metaphors, illustrations that show how history repeats itself, how human experience remains constant; as if time was a spiral that returns us again and again to the same point of destiny and by so doing allows us to “know the place for the first time”. 2

Hughie O'Donoghue Fiume V: No Fear 2004
Fiume V: No Fear, 2004

In the Tomb of the Diver paintings an Icarus-like figure plunges from the sky towards the tomb, here represented as a glass predella that contains objects such as a typewriter, a spade, a camera, artefacts that belonged to the artist’s father during the Second World War. Echoes of the Marsyas sculpture and the Mussolini photograph are inescapable, but so too is the iconography of the crucifixion. The central vertical figure becomes that of a secularized Christ and harks back to O’Donoghue’s Passion series, Via Crucis, made in the mid 90s. At one and the same time flesh, paint and an elemental streak of light, these figures set against their dark dense grounds speak of a triumph of hope over despair, of culture over barbarianism. As with The Sea! The Sea! I, 2002 they illustrate something of the endless opposition between the Apollonian and Dionysian that Nietzsche saw as “redemption through illusion” – which is, of course, art – characterised by an underlying “primal unity” of “eternal suffering and contradiction”.

In Course of The Diver I and II, 2002 and Diver III (date?) the figure transmutes into a swimmer. Amid black waters set against a backdrop of deep ochres and oranges, smudged with patches of dirty yellow suggestive of the glare and sulphurous smoke of some distant battle field, the figure swims half-submerged so that we can only guess at whether he is drowning or struggling to reach the far shore.

It is these expressions of suffering, of struggle, of half-submerged memories that O’Donghue weaves into his courageous paintings to form complex psychological maps. At once both gorgeous and lush – with their deep blues, ochres and ox-blood reds, their dense blacks and their glazed surfaces – they are also, in the true Romantic sense of the word, awe inspiring. Images rise to the surface like his divers slipping through dark water, like ghosts, like photographs finding form in developing solution.

Hughie O'Donoghue Sangro 2004
Sangro, 2004

The Cook’s Traveller’s handbook for Southern Italy of 1928 contains the following entry on Baia in the Bay of Naples: “It is said to have derived its name from Baius, pilot of Ulysses but of its early history very little is know. The splendour of the old Roman water place is now departed. The palatial villas, which once covered the surrounding hills, are no more. In their place, we have only innumerable fragments and ruins of every kind, half-hidden in the underworld.” While Horace wrote:

“Nothing in the world can be compared to the lovely bay of Baise.”

A photograph taken at Baia in 1944 shows the young Daniel, naked to the waist, bathing. He is smiling at the camera, no doubt enjoying a break from the chaotic theatre of war and relishing the sense that he is now homeward bound. In the seven large paintings to date that form the Baia series, this sense of restful respite, of release and quiet celebration, is emphasised by the outstretched arms and legs of the floating figures immersed, as in a dream, in a deep blue ground suggestive of water. In Baia VI the swimmer is set against the horizon of the actual beach recovered from an old wartime photograph. Both a reverie and a real location, it is as if only the body is able to remember, to retain a true sense of place, carrying in its blood the imprint of traumatic and profound experience. Memory becomes the recollection of salt on skin, the pleasure of bare limbs in water released from heavy army kaki; an experience to be wrestled with as paint on a canvas gathering to it the meaning of history, of survival, of being alive.

The Voltuno, Sangro, Rapido, Gariglaino and the Po.

The names of these Italian rivers reverberate like a litany, like the voices of sirens calling men home. But their songs are also treacherous and their waters deep. To list these rivers is to map the journey taken by those who had to cross them in 1944. For some they became a grave, a resting place; for others they were simply an obstacle to be negotiated on the way north. As the German army retreated up the Italian peninsular it used the country’s natural rivers and valleys to delay and sabotage the allied armies on their hazardous journey. Daniel O’Donoghue crossed the Rapido on the night of the 11th May 1944 in the 4th and final battle for Monte Cassino. An infantry platoon sergeant in the King’s Liverpool Regiment, his boat overturned in the river where he was rescued from drowning by a private solider in his platoon. Death and resurrection. Transformation and renewal.

Hughie O'Donoghue Volturno 2004
Volturno, 2004

The new works that form the Fiume Volterno series also take their names from the rivers that bisect the Italian peninsular: Sangro, Volturno. The soft Italian is seductive but they have a dark, a Dionysian side. From antiquity these rivers were represented as gods, as can be seen by the sculpture of the River God Marfioro, in Rome Capitonline Museum. For many years these huge works were not recognised for what they were. Because these rivers irrigated the land, were the very source of life, they were considered sacred. Within the sculptures they are identified by their attributes: the rudder (navigation), water reeds or the cornucopia (abundance and fertility.) Over the centuries the symbolism survived to resurface in propaganda leaflets dropped by the German forces on the retreating divisions. The River Po became a seductress proffering a basket of ripe fruit, only to reappear on the inside of the leaflet as a figure of death rising from a river of dead soldiers.

In many ways Hughie O’Donoghue has taken a journey that differs from the more usual trajectory of contemporary painters from the abstract back to the figure. In the summer of 1981, when he lived in Kent, he took down and folded up ‘The Last Abstract Painting in Orpington’. The figure with its potential for emotional, poetic and symbolic power has since become central. His paintings are built of glazed layers of paint; cadmium yellow, cadmium red, burnt sienna and lead white. There is a fusion of under drawing and paint that allows traces of the original figure to be discerned under the heavy skin of oil. His paintings grow in slow accretions, organically, like alluvial layers left by an endlessly flooding river. The figure becomes part of their archaeology. Very particular care is taken as to how paint is applied. Newsprint is laid on the primed surfaces to absorb the oil, which leaves a ghostly impression and becomes integral to the painting. It is a trace element of the real world, though its practical use is to provide a tooth for the paint, for if the surface is too smooth the paint will not adhere.

Hughie O'Donoghue Deep Water 2004
Deep Water, 2004

It is a slow process. If the surface becomes too smooth he will return to it with an electric sander. He does not do preliminary drawings as such, following the Venetian painters of the sixteen century he so admires, the drawing takes place on the canvas. The figure is usually slightly more than life size. Thick paint is applied over thin. Green is painted over warm flesh tones, to give, as in Renaissance painting, muscle tone, a sense of something under the skin, so an area of paint can be read as a shoulder bone or a thigh. The image is moved around as he tries to define it in his head. Slab-like areas of smooth black are achieved with a palette knife. He will use what is necessary. The canvas is a laboratory of exploration. As in Titian’s late great paintings where the real world dissolves into a universe of paint, he battles for the balance between what is being represented and the actual process of painting. The question that always hovers is how far he can push a particular work before it no longer has any connection to the real world. Every part has to work. Over the years he has learnt a sensitivity to his material similar to that of the violinist to his score. The mark becomes infused with emotional tension. There is a conscious sensuality of paint, its layers become as seductive as skin.

His rejection of pure abstraction is because he cares about more than formalism. The subject matters. It allows for both a freedom and discipline. He needs to know the details; they provide the milestones on his journey of exploration, which because it reaches out to the universal, avoids self-indulgent solipsism.

This is work that speaks to all those who believe in art and its regenerative power, who believe that its important themes remain the universal ones, those that T.S.Eliot once described as birth, copulation and death. These are paintings that assert that art matter, that life matters, that history is not death and that we are part of its continuing warp and weft. In a secular age, O’Donoghue dares to make art which deals with the bits of the psyche that religion once nurtured and are, so often, now left out in the cold.

Hughie O’ Donoghue at Purdy Hicks from 14 October to 22 November 2004

1 East Coker, Four Quartets. T.S.Eliot
2 Little Gidding, Four Quartets. T.S. Eliot

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Hughie O’ Donoghue 2004

Art Catalogues

Freya Payne
Armour for the Broken Hearted

Catalogue for the Exhibition at Flowers

Freya Payne Armour for the broken-hearted 2003
Armour for the broken-hearted, 2003

The work in Freya Paine’s exhibition Armour for the Broken Hearted is connected to the time of its making during the build up, duration and aftermath of the Iraq war. In the window of the gallery are a series of light boxes. In each one there is a small edifice made of twigs covered with a thin paper canopy inscribed with ribbons of words. The central sculpture contains the word hope written in neon. All three pieces have little drawers containing coins and bones. They feel like small wayside shrines where objects have been left by devout pilgrims in the hope of some divine intervention or the classification boxes of an archaeologist. Within the centre of the gallery stands a long thin oak plank table. Placed at one end is a cairn of strange little artefacts made from found wood – poplar and oak – carved and whittled into what, at first glance, look like a handful of whitened bones. Some have been painted, others are covered in tiny inscriptions and broken text. At the other end of the table is a pair of carved feet, the soles of which are inscribed with fragments of text such as: “all these promises that I made.” The piece is funereal, suggestive of a mortuary slab or the presence of the dead body of Christ taken from the cross.

Freya Payne Untitled 2003
Untitled, 2003

Along the wall, at the head of the table, are a number of the little sculptural objects threaded with horse hair and tiny rings of inscribed bone like the votive offerings found dedicated to the statues of saints, believed to have healing powers, in Catholic churches from Italy to South America. In front of these stands a glass case of dried, threaded petals, while on the wall opposite the feet is a strange armorial shape inserted with quartz pebbles, also covered in fragments of text – the armour for the broken hearted. On the two side walls are a series of portraits; heads of people close to the artist. Some have their eyes downcast or shut; others part their lips as if about to speak only to find the words stillborn on their lips. They are painted with great sensitivity and detail, though the brush strokes, in soft muted greys and fleshy pinks, remain loose and free.

These portraits seem to act as silent witnesses to the staged event in the centre of the gallery. They are both inert voyeurs and shocked onlookers, each shut in his or her own individual space. Implicitly they appear to be asking questions about moral responsibility, culpability and indifference to the suffering of others. This is a very ambitious show. As a total installation it does not quite cohere, perhaps because it is too theatrical or, maybe because it is not quite theatrical enough. Nevertheless there is a tender beauty to the small votive objects, while the portraits have a power and a poignancy that is rare among young portrait painters today. To make work that stems from moral engagement and social concern, which is aesthetic rather than didactic, is a brave move in today’s climate of raunchy one liners.

Freya Payne Witness III, V & VIII 2003
Witness III, V & VIII, 2003

Freya Payne Armour for the Broken Hearted at Flowers from 8 to 31 January 2004

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004

Images © Freya Payne 2003
Photography by Shaun McCracken

Art Catalogues

Mauro Perucchetti

Catalogue for the Exhibition at Halycon Gallery

The signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on     one side and empty on the other.
Mythologies, Roland Barthes

There is an irony at the heart of the Italian artist Mauro Perucchetti’s work, for it is both a critique of the late consumerist society in which we live, yet part and parcel of it. This is not a dichotomy that he denies but one which is central to the character of his work. Essentially a Pop artist he seduces the viewer with his playful, jewel-like substances, the sweetie colours of his market inspired objects. Beautifully made, his work is opulent and kitsch, yet like the iron fist in the velvet glove, it delivers a far greater punch than the apparent froufrou character at first suggests.
Mauro Perucchetti Art Market
Art Market

Ambivalence is at the centre of his work. The French philosopher Jean François Lyotard has argued that postmodernism is not something separate to modernism but bound in a dialectic relationship to it. There is art, he suggests, which caters, on the one hand to a nostalgia for an unattainable wholeness and a sense of presence and other art, which we call ‘postmodern’, in which the very impossibility of this attainment is what is served up to the viewer. Where modernism was dominated by production and industrial capitalism, postmodern culture is an era of ‘simulations’ expressed in new forms of technology and multi-faceted experience. Modernity was distinguished by its expansion, energy and forward movement, along with various idealistic projects that sought to represent and reinterpret ideas of the real, whilst postmodernity has been distinguished, as Jean Baudrillard writes, by “implosion, de-differentiation, reproduction of models of the hyperreal and inertia.”

When Marcel Duchamp made his ‘ready mades’, he paradoxically alerted the viewer to the challenges posed to art by the artefacts of industry and mass communication. The question became, not ‘what is beautiful?’ but ‘what can art say?’ The work of Mauro Perucchetti falls between these two poles. Conceptually and intellectually it belongs to the ideals of modernism, in that it is replete with moral and sociological questions born from the oppositional utopian values of the 1960s, particularly the Italian arte povera movement, whilst visually it drapes itself in the glitzy catwalk attire and consumerist spangles of the postmodern – colourful resin, gold and glitz – gaudy enough to bedeck any perfume counter or jewellery store. For Perucchetti there is no tension between his surfaces and content. As he insists, when we meet at the Halcyon gallery, ideas alone are not enough. Concepts are what make a philosopher not an artist. For him art has to be ‘beautiful’, to have a strong element of craft, as well as being meaningful.

Resin is his chosen medium and one that he has, through painstaking experimentation, made his own. It was a material he first used as a young man at the age of 17, long before a decision to become a professional artist after a successful career as a designer and architect. Then, later, when searching for a material with which to make his Jelly Babies – brightly coloured, bulbous little human forms without faces, in which he highlighted the issues of cloning – he alighted upon it again. At the time he was told it would be an impossible substance to work with on any scale. But like an alchemist he beavered away, refining its clarity, removing bubbles and fissures, to produce a glowing transparent resin as clear as Venetian glass.

Mauro Perucchetti By Prescription Only
By Prescription Only

His influences are eclectic. There are numerous playful references to other artists including Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol, but perhaps the most obvious is his ironic take on Piero Manzoni’s famous tins of Artist’s Shit. Piero Manzoni was an Italian artist best known for his ironic conceptual art, influenced by a group of Italian artists brought together by the critic Germano Celent in the first Arte Povera exhibition held in Genoa, 1967. Manzoni’s series of artworks called into question the nature of the art object, eschewing traditional art materials, instead using everything from rabbit fur to human excrement in order to “tap mythological sources and to realize authentic and universal values” . In May 1961 he created 90 small cans, sealed with labels that said Artist’s Shit (Merda d’Artista). Each 30-gram can was priced by weight based on the current value of gold. The content of the cans has remained a much-disputed enigma; for to open them would be to destroy their value as artworks, surely an irony Manzoni intended. A critique of the mass production and consumerism that was changing Italian society, Manzoni seemed to be suggesting that like King Midas, the clever contemporary artist could turn even his own excrement into gold. In his version, Art Market, Perucchetti has created yet another layer of irony. Recalling Andy Warhol’s series of tomato soup cans, and Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinet Pharmacy, 1992, he has made replicas of Manzoni’s tins, covered in 24 carat gold plate. (The tins are made from brass. The original all- gold ones exploded.) Copying Tesco’s tuna can labels he has printed them, instead, with sharks. The reference is, of course, to Hirst’s ubiquitous image. Perucchetti deliberately highlights the blurred boundaries between Manzoni’s original protest and the appropriation by the art market of any such oppositional objects, which turns them very quickly into sought after commodities. Artifacts of protest quickly become objects of desire and commercial exchange.

Mauro Perucchetti Garden of Eden
Garden of Eden

Surface and meaning are the binaries that give muscle to Perucchetti’s work, though meaning is often deliberately veiled. He is not keen on artists who shock as a form of protest. He would rather seduce his viewer with the visual glitter of his work, letting them imbibe his message in their own time. (He accepts that some viewers will never get past the seduction.) Once such piece is There is something about Mary. Here the most famous woman in history, the Madonna, is presented in a costume of chain mail. Part Lady Gaga outfit, part Burka, the image mirrors the complex roles of women that lurch between Madonna and whore and still prevail in a, supposedly, post-feminist society. Faceless and ghostlike she becomes everywoman; a projection of male, female and consumerist fantasy alike, a blank canvas onto which we can write our dreams. In The Bitch Club, a row of Barbie dolls shut in their glass case, like so many sleeping beauties waiting to be kissed into life, emphasize the pressure on young women to conform to stereotypes of beauty that breed competition, narcissism and neurosis.

Myth and fairy tale run through Perucchetti’s work. The symbolic and erotic significance of the shoe has been explored by Bruno Bettelheim in his study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment and is implicitly taken up in Perucchetti’s Sex and the City, where rows of glass slippers, covered in coloured rhinestones and hearts, are displayed fetishistically on individual shelves like props out the wardrobe of some Miss World or Drag Queen. As Marina Warner points out in From the Beast to the Blonde, the slipper in Perrault’s ‘Cinderella’ was originally made of vair, that is fur or ermine, which Perrault mistakenly read as glass. This Freudian slippage became a perfect metaphor for the taming of female nature. “The glass slipper,” Warner writes, “works to dematerialize the troubling aspects of [female] nature, her natural fleshiness, her hairy vitality, and so give a sign of her new, socialized value.” The glass slipper becomes the perfect mirrored surface in which the cleansed image of Cinderella is mirrored back to her from society: the hirsute, lascivious woman transformed into a waxed, preened and sanitized version of womanhood. For Perucchetti his rows of ‘fuck-me’ shoes suggest the commodification of the sex industry, as well as the demands on ordinary women to conform, often through cosmetic surgery, to pre-ordained norms of beauty. A Theory of Evolution (which, he claims, was inspired by Paris Hilton with her Chiwawa) plays with notions of interbreeding. An animal lover, Perucchetti is commenting on the freakish way that fashionable dogs are inbred, often to the point of handicap, to satisfy consumer desire. The perky little mutt, covered in Swarowski crystals, might also stand as a symbol for a certain type of celebrity female whose only value is judged to be as some sort of glittering pet to be wooed by the public and suitors alike. His respect for women can, alternatively, be read in Michelangelo, his hand-carved marble sculpture based on Michelangelo’s famous David, a work, that here, has been metamorphosed into a woman of power. This is Perucchetti’s peon to womanhood, to the downtrodden of the female sex. It acts as a companion piece to the marble of Batman and Superman (Superman is somewhat ironically modeled on a self-portrait of the artist) in which these icons of ultimate male hood mimic the placement of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

Mauro Perucchetti The Bitch Club
The Bitch Club

In much of his work Perucchetti uses multiples beloved by both Pop artists such as Warhol and minimalist artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre, and later taken up by Damien Hirst with his butterflies and vitrines of prescription medicines. This is particularly effective in a piece such as Press Cuts, where a row of two handed Celtic medieval claymore swords is decorated with the names of daily newspapers (newspapers, themselves, being created in multiples.) These colourful swords of Damocles hang there reminding us of the vulnerability of free speech and democracy, of how easy it is to cut and censor information and hack away at the truth. Jonathan Aitkin’s infamous words, uttered at his trial for perjury, about the ‘trusty sword of truth’ spring to mind. Multiples are, again, used in The Garden of Eden, where a row of 30 apples covered in crunchy coloured crystals ironically elide notions of Eve’s temptation with those of the seductions of modern day shopping. These ideas are taken even further in By Prescription Only. Here, in a series of highly coloured medicinal capsules filled at one end with ‘diamonds’, Perucchetti seems to be offering a sedative for society’s addiction to consumerism and luxury.

Made in China (Trojan virus) also makes clever use of the multiple. Evoking China’s famous terracotta army, Perucchetti creates his own postmodern version that makes reference to commercial espionage. His sweetie coloured babes, with their pert silicon enhanced breasts, sit astride their golden steeds conjuring the practice of major companies, particularly those from China and Russia, to plant pretty girls to act as lures and spies at trade fairs, in order to discover new technological secrets and information. Cyber warfare is, after all, the new battle zone. A Trojan Horse virus (named after the mythological wooden horse with which the Greeks finally to entered and defeated the besieged city of Troy) can infiltrate and jam computer systems, bringing international companies and government departments to their knees.

Mauro Perucchetti Trojan Virus
Trojan Virus

An ironic sense of humour runs through all Perucchetti’s work but it deliberately avoids the visceral, gritty elements that have characterised the work of the Ybas, the blood used by Marc Quinn, the carcasses of Hirst or the bedroom clutter of Tracey Emin. Perucchetti likes his deconstructions of the ills of western society to be accompanied by a degree of Italian style. In Feeding the 5000 he illustrates, with comic book wit, that he can address the most serious of issues. Here a totemic bust of Obama appears on top of a huge red American Pez sweet dispenser; part Christ-like figure, part Disney cartoon. The title, of course, suggests the impossible expectations imposed upon Obama who, like some latter-day Wild West sheriff, was expected to ride into town to put the world to rights with instant Messianic miracles. Dispensable sweets, dispensable presidents, dispensable freedoms and democracy, this is a suck-it-and-see culture. For there is always another brand or flavour to choose from in this packaged, commidified world when the going gets tough and we don’t want to face up to uncomfortable truths such as those that Mauro Perucchetti’s work playfully, yet unapologetically, continues to reveal.

Mauro Perucchetti at Halycon Gallery from 8 Oct to 15 Dec 2010


Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

Images © Mauro Perucchetti 2010. Courtesy of the Halycon Gallery

Art Catalogues

Poets’ Riddles in Stone

Catalogue Essay for the Roche Court Sculpture Park

SUCH SADNESS LIES IN THE HOLLOW CONTOURS
OF HER IVORY FACE; COLD, HALF-HIDDEN
BENEATH ITS HOODED BLACKS.
TONIGHT SHE WILL QUIETLY TURN AWAY
ASHAMED BY HER LACK OF WARMTH.

 
Charlotte Howarth
Charlotte Howarth

In the beginning was the Word, and the need to create signs to describe, interpret and tame the world goes back 25,000-30,000 years. To make a mark or a cut is, like all good graffitists know, a bid for immortality. The oldest known writing system, Cunei form, dates back some 5,000 years. In western culture the finest illuminated manuscripts were produced during the Middle Ages when the monastery functioned as a place of culture and education, producing and reproducing editions of Greek and Roman texts and the Bible. These were written in book-hand half uncial and uncial type on wax tablets, papyrus rolls and parchment. Western calligraphy and lettering has evolved into an art where creativity stems from rigorous discipline. Only after its mastery are new techniques and, perhaps, abstracted characters embraced. Unlike a typeface, irregularity in the characters’ size and style adds meaning to the Greek translation “beautiful letters”. Fonts, words and phrases can be explored to the point of visual, technical and aesthetic abstraction so that a work can, in the end, be experienced like a contemporary painting. The content may have become completely illegible, but it will not necessarily be less meaningful.

Zoe Cull
Zoe Cull

Many cultures have a tradition of riddle-poems. Among the earliest to come down to us are the Babylonian, which were incised on wax tablets. Others appear in the Rig Veda, the Bible and the Koran. The riddle had many functions; they may have been a form of magic or a test of knowledge. In the case of the riddle of the Sphinx, who guarded the gates of Thebes, a failure to answer her arcane question: ‘What has one voice, goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?’ (it was, of course, Man and Oedipus who gave the correct answer) resulted in certain death. In Mayan culture aspirants to prestigious positions were asked to interpret coded phrases of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel.

Gary Breeze
Gary Breeze

Just under a hundred Anglo-Saxon riddles have come down to us in the Exeter Book bequeathed to the Cathedral Library in 1072 by the first bishop of the diocese, Leofric. Their survival is something of a miracle. The manuscript was probably written or transcribed late in the tenth century – though many were first composed in the seventh or eighth century. Variously used as a beer mat, a chopping board and damaged by fire the manuscript has been badly ravished. Who composed these riddles and why is not clear and the scribe who wrote them did not include the solutions. In fact they may have been short oral pieces used to entertain the audience between performances of epics such as Beowulf or have been sung by minstrels around a smoking fire. Many are translations from the Latin. But through them we catch a glimpse of an Anglo-Saxon world not found elsewhere in Old English literature.They share with other Anglo-Saxon poetry the sense that all things form part of a living continuum, any element of which can speak with its own voice. This vision was to be echoed centuries later in the poetry of the Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose notion of ‘inscape’ was based on the belief that the unique characteristics of each thing reflected the glory of God:”Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, / Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”

Charles Gurrey
Charles Gurrey

The subject matter and tone of riddles was enormously varied. They were concerned with war as well as with the new Christian faith that swept through England in the seventh century. Some were witty, others ribald with an earthy sense of humour that relied on double entrendres. Many were concerned with the stuff of everyday life, with matters both great and small. They named icebergs and onions, swallows and storms. They described ploughs and anchors, animals and bird life and have been called the songs of ‘the unsung labourer’. It is as if, within the riddle, the familiar came to life and the mystery of the world was made manifest. The objects described were not seen as inert but considered to be living entities with their own histories. A spear or a cross, for example, was once a tree. Objects may, also, have gone through a period of tribulation to find their final form. Stoicism, and what was considered to be the Christian acceptance of pain, was characteristic. A sword endured the trials of the battlefield to become strong, while parchment suffered to become a holy Bible. Riddles often opened with lines like”! am a marvel” as though the authors were so awestruck by the miracle of Creation that they wanted, through the medium of the riddle, to describe the world of God in all its splendour.

Tom Perkins
Tom Perkins

This exhibition, then, at Roche Court is about collaboration; the collaboration between the hand of the carver and the mind’s eye of the poet. It reveals how the word can be made visual and the visual can extend the meaning of language. As Gary Breeze has said, a sculpture is like a riddle. For all good art intrigues and challenges, refusing to relinquish its deepest meanings with the first casual glance. A lump of stone is just a lump of stone until the sculptor sets to with his or her tools to set free its secret meaning. As the French philosopher poet Gaston Bachelard writes,”memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.” Memory is the territory of the poet and fixing those memories in space has, here, become the letter-cutter’s role.Through the long slow process of the carver’s art the transient image of the poet becomes anchored and literally ‘set in stone.’

Ben Jones
Ben Jones

Creativity is a form of cultivation; both language and visual ideas start as a ‘seed’ or a ‘green fuse’, which like the spring bulbs hidden deep beneath the well mulched soil or the twiggy herbaceous border plants waiting for the warmer weather to send forth new growth, will only reveal themselves within their own time. Set in the beautiful kitchen garden of Roche Court – a garden hidden within the larger park – one surrounded by weathered brick walls that can only be entered through a number of narrow gates, this exhibition is like a secret waiting to be discovered. The newly carved riddles by contemporary poets found here are experienced first as objects. The text initially functions as a series of visual signs, which only with patience on the part of the viewer, slowly like a riddle, discloses its meaning. The old garden is redolent with small tales of past cultivation and the day to day domesticity of an English country house. There are cold frames and glass houses, antique tools and fragments of pots, stone and slate. The historic function of all these artefacts is not always apparent but many are the sort of working objects about which the Anglo-Saxons would have created their riddles. The subjects chosen by today’s poets are elemental and include stone, time, a house, slate, the earth and a chisel. Such objects and themes seem to invite the creation of metaphors.

Richard Kindersley
Richard Kindersley

The tradition of the riddle is the creative use of metaphor, simile, and metonymy, where the description of an object is both concrete yet highly imaginative.The metaphor is a device of the poetic imagination, a rhetorical flourish and a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Often it is viewed as characteristic of language alone; a matter of words rather than of actions, yet the metaphor is pervasive in how we view everyday life. Our ordinary conceptual system, how we both think and act is, in many ways, metaphorical in nature. This plays a central role in defining our everyday reality, in how we perceive the world and relate to other people, so that the way we think and our understanding is very much a matter of metaphor. It is this quality that can be found in the riddle. For these knotty little linguistic puzzles insist that we see the ordinary with new eyes and experience the world afresh. In our fast moving lives where so much is transient, where words are hardly, any longer, committed to paper, let alone stone, the hand-carved riddle provides a point of stillness and intimacy. These beautiful yet modest objects create a space where we are able to focus our attention and find moments of quiet contemplation outside the hurly-burly and, as Bachelard wrote ‘unlock a door to daydreaming.’

THE ANSWER: THE MOON
Riddle by Sue Hubbard

Poets’ Riddles in Stone at Roche Court Sculpture Park from 21 June to 7 September 2008

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images subject to copyright of the Artists

Art Catalogues

Carol Robertson
Abstract Realities

Catalogue Essay

Vincent van Gogh Rain - Auvers: July, 1890Vincent van Gogh Rain – Auvers: July, 1890

Rain – Auvers painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1890 and now housed in The National Museum &  Gallery, Cardiff, is a work that has haunted the painter Carol Robertson since the 1970’s when she first saw it as an art student. In May 1890 van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, just an hour by train from Paris. He was hoping to find the stability he so craved, which had eluded him during his time in the south. From Auvers he wrote to his brother Theo, “I have painted three big canvases already.” “They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to try to express sadness and the extreme of loneliness.” Days after writing this, van Gogh was dead. Rain – Auvers may well have been one of the paintings to which he referred. Full of poignant melancholy, with its subdued northern palette, its horizontal golden cornfields set against slate-grey, blue-grey bands of sky, village and woods, it is the painting to which Robertson has returned as the catalyst for her homage to van Gogh.

Carol Robertson is an abstract painter. Her refined geometric configurations use a consciously limited vocabulary of circles, squares and striped formations. It is as if through this considered, condensed language she is able to tap into a well spring of archetypal metaphors, to connect with what is timeless; the spirituality evoked in the unbroken image of the mandala, notions of fidelity, the symbolism of returning to zero, of beginning the same journey yet again but in a different form. To know, as T.S. Eliot said, “the place for the first time.” Although her work is abstract, her inspiration stems from the real and experienced world, from complex human emotions. The relationship between dark and light informs everything she paints. Apart from the subtle physical and visual effects it creates, she sets up a series of philosophical binaries; a dialectic between inside and out, between what is revealed and what remains hidden and illustrates the tension between the made image and the real world that inspired it.

Carol Robertson For Vincent Van Gogh: Rain-Auvers 1 2003
For Vincent Van Gogh: Rain-Auvers 1, 2003

Her starting points for For Vincent van Gogh: Rain – Auvers 1, 2003 were scale and format. Van Gogh’s painting is 19″ x 38″; a double square ideal for a panoramic landscape. Robertson has used the same format, upscaled to 40″ x 80″. She has also appropriated van Gogh’s soft brooding colours, rebalancing them in an abstract formation of stripes to evoke the same subdued mood as in the original painting. But more than anything it is the harsh diagonals of rain that link the two works. In June 1890, van Gogh wrote to his sister, “A fine drizzle of rain streaks the whole with blue and grey lines.” Yet there is nothing delicate about van Gogh’s drizzle. Rather the painting evokes a sense of angry frustration, a desire for erasure, as if, to quote Eliot again, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.” It is in these dramatic lines of cancellation that we can sense something of the turmoil of van Gogh’s final days. It is as if in his disturbed state of mind he could not accept the quiet work that he had executed, for the daring diagonals seem to cut across the skin of the painting like self-inflicted wounds or fixed bars that divide the viewer from the valley ahead; from the cottages, hearths and home, as if all comfort must be denied. As Robertson has said, such marks “merit the actions of a man whose art is expressing what he sees, but reveal all too painfully what he is feeling.”

Carol Robertson For Vincent Van Gogh: Rain-Auvers 2 2003
Rain-Auvers 2, 2003

It was van Gogh’s addition of the rain to his painting, this potential act of painterly self-immolation that so moved Robertson. In her own version the painting was effectively completed before she added the diagonals, which dissect the entire surface from top to bottom like bolts of electric blue lightening. Thus a quiet, formal work, with its beautifully balanced bands of yellow, blue and black has evolved into one with an enormous emotional charge. Risk, negation, the possibility of collapse and failure, as well as the movement from positive to negative back to positive, all play their part in the potential reading of this painting. For Robertson seems intuitively to have understood that by letting go and allowing his emotions to dominate, van Gogh arrived at something that was vulnerable and precarious, fragile yet full of passion, which could not have been achieved any other way. It is this quality that emanates from her own painting; a combination of aesthetic control and emotion.

Carol Robertson For Vincent Van Gogh: Rain-Auvers 3 2003
Rain-Auvers 3, 2003

For Vincent van Gogh: Rain-Auvers 2 and 3, she moved further away from the original work so that the diagonal slashes of rain have been reduced to structural abstract elements within her familiar motif, the circle. The circle is the form to which she finds herself intuitively returning again and again; for it is organic, feminine, democratic and non-hierarchical. In Auvers 3 the central aperture opens into a blue void that suggests both the infinite heaven of a medieval painting and the endless cycle of life that is the hallmark of many oriental religions. In a more western, psychoanalytic reading it might be seen as the core of the self; that elusive place constantly sought by the serious artist.

Carol Robertson Coming the Evening 2004
Coming the Evening, 2004

Immediately after completing the van Gogh inspired paintings Robertson started a residency at the Ballinglen Art Foundation in Co Mayo, Ireland, where she made a series of finely wrought watercolours. In these Robertson demonstrates her distinctive hallmark; the fine balance between what is controlled and what is felt. Here solid blocks of watercolour have been laid down over splashes and leakages of paint that describe clouds, sun and rain, the fleeting changes and nuances of weather in the actual physical world. There is an added potency in that the medium used, water, is also the very element she is attempting to describe. Other elements such as the smooth stones and pebbles glimpsed on remote Irish beaches find their way, in abstract form, into paintings such as My Own Sky and Lago. Here the inner asymmetrical spheres fill the inner void of the controlled compass drawn circle to create a tension between mind and heart. Ultimately all Carol Robertson’s decisions are intellectual and aesthetic. The question pondered in the studio may be, for example, does that violet glow with yellow or must it be knocked back or pulled forward to make the painting work? Certain areas will be worked and reworked many times, though the history of the painting is always visible to the careful viewer. Surfaces of differing solidity and light are placed next to each other. Some are opaque and impenetrable, others transparent and atmospheric. This has the effect of making the eye see the same area in different ways, both as solid form and as space. But her surfaces are always tactile, intimate and sensual; demanding to be touched like skin. Often during the construction of a painting she will write on the canvas. It is a form of psychic instruction to herself; a way of working out what she really thinks is important. Although always covered beneath layers of oil paint in the final work, these thoughts and words exist embedded within the fabric of a painting like fossils in striations of rock. In works like Soft Day or Come the Evening empty vistas of ocean, pearl grey mists and saturated sunsets are evoked with a poetic lyricism. Her methodology is meditative and slow; a process of discovery, a coming into being found through the physical act of careful observant painting, where there exists a constant play between hard and soft as the brush rubs up against the line and forms an edge. Eschewing short cuts and the paraphernalia of the modern studio: masking tape and spray guns, Carol Robertson’s paintings are ‘found’ through the long slow process of their making. They cannot be forced. For like breathing or the beat of the heart they need to find their own rhythms. As she has said, the “I as I comes through living and experience, you can’t learn it like reading or writing.”

It is this balance, this desire for the integration of the self that is painter with the self that is a caring, observant, considered person living in the actual world, that gives these paintings their potency. For as the American poet Walt Whitman wrote in his elegiac poem Song of Myself:

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world,
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and
increase, always sex.
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

Carol Robertson’s paintings may be abstract but they are never disconnected from the natural world, from complex feelings, from the awe we feel in front of nature, they are never self-consciously and only just art;they are “always a breed of life.”

Abstract Realities Part 1 at the National Museum of Wales from 8 October to 5 December 2004
Abstract Realities Part 2 at Howard Gardens Gallery from 8 October to 11 November 2004
Abstract Realities Part 3 at Flowers, London from 12 October to 6 November 2004

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2004
Vincent van Gogh Rain – Auvers: Courtesy of the National Museum of Wales
Images © Carol Robertson 2003-200

Art Catalogues

Rodin
All About Eve

Catalogue for the Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge

Your name means
Life: finite, dynamic, swimming against
the current of time, tasting, testing,
eating knowledge like any other nutrient.
We are all children of your bright hunger.
Apple Sauce for Eve: Marge Piercy 

Masolino The Temptation of Adam and Eve
Masolino
The Temptation of Adam and Eve
Masaccio Masaccio The Expulsion fom the Garden of Eden
Masaccio
The Expulsion fom the Garden of Eden

The above lines written by the American feminist poet, Marge Piercy, depict Eve as a sassy heroine ‘swimming against the current of time’, munching on her apple where the seeds represent “freedom and the flowering of choice”. I doubt whether medieval scholars would have recognised this Eve. For as with all good archetypes she is open to reinvention to suit the needs of different epochs and cultures. In Hans Memling’s version, depicted in the outer right hand panel of his 1485 triptych, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, she is a sweet faced, barely pubescent girl with tiny breasts and Godiva tresses, coyly holding an apple. While in Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece she is obviously older, more knowing and already roundly pregnant. In Masolino’s fresco painted in 1425 for the Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine, Florence, she appears as a temptress, languidly leaning against the tree of knowledge beneath the blond hair and female face of the coiled snake that flickers above her head like a serpentine alter ego. This stands in contrast to Masaccio’s depiction of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, on the opposite wall of the chapel, painted between 1426-27, where Eve’s downcast face and heavy body seem to bear not only the weight of her own sin but the sins of ali humanity. George Frederick Watt’s Eve, in the central panel of his trilogy in the Tate, breaks with tradition and does not show the serpent. Instead she is portrayed in a moment of sensuous abandon taking a fatal bite from the apple, while enjoying the heady fragrance of the blossom. For the German Symbolist painter, Franz von Stuck, his Eve, entitled Sin, painted in 1893 at the high point of continental symbolism, smiles enigmatically at the viewer, her milk white breasts and belly framed by tresses of dark hair. Wrapped around her is an enormous malevolent boa constrictor. Hooded and phallic, its presence leaves little doubt about this particular Eve’s supposed lascivious decadence. Here she is depicted as dangerous and depraved, a deadly femme fatale.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck Eve
Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Eve
Hans Memling
Hans Memling
Eve

Art has always acted as a mirror communicating ideas about social order through the representation of male and female sexuality. Male-constructed images of women are so embedded in Western culture that they – and our readings of them – appear quite ‘natural’. For the last 2,500 years the Genesis story of Adam and Eve has coloured our views of sexual identity and influenced the way men, and particularly women, are portrayed in art. The story claims that God created man in his own likeness. He was then given dominion over everything. God is male and the story stresses man’s primacy and centrality in the universe. Eve is only created (in an alternative version of the story) from his rib in a divine afterthought, as a sort of prelapsarian playmate. As with Mary within later Christian iconography, Eve became for Hebrew women a metonym signifying the essence of womanhood. But it was within Pauline theology that Eve’s secondary position in the creation myth and her apparent primacy in sin were used to justify the subjugation of women within the Christian Church. As with the stories of Pandora and Clytemnestra from Pagan times and Litith (who according to Midrashic Jewish literature was Adam’s first wife, who left him) what is female was seen as chthonic, an unruly force that would create disorder. These ancient myths reveal a deep seated male fear of woman’s suppressed power, which if ever unleashed would overthrow the balanced harmony of Paradise bringing disease and pestilence upon the world.

In October 1881, Rodin obtained a commission from the Directorate of Fine Arts for two big statues of Adam and Eve to stand alongside his ambitious Gates of Hell. During his first trip to Italy in the spring of 1876, he had become fascinated by the work of Michelangelo. The outstretched finger of Rodin’s Adam echoes that of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Adam was the first sculpture for the Gates of Hell to become an independent figure and was presented in plaster to the Salon in 1881. For his sculpture of Eve, Rodin used a brunette Italian model, probably one of a family of sisters who frequently posed for him. In an interview with the writer Dujardin-Beaumetz, he later described how he found himself daily changing the contours of his model, without quite knowing why. Later he discovered that she was pregnant. This he claimed was the reason for leaving his version of Eve unfinished.

George Frederic Watts Eve Tempted
George Frederic Watts
Eve Tempted

“The gesture of the standing figure”, wrote the German poet Rilke, who worked for a while as Rodin’s secretary, “develops further. It withdraws into itself, it shrivels like burning paper, it becomes stronger, more concentrated, more animated. That Eve, (which) was originally to be placed over the Gates of Hell, stands”, he continued, “with head sunk deeply into the shadow of the arms that draw together over the breast like those of a freezing woman. The back is rounded, the nape of the neck almost horizontal. She bends forward as though listening over her own body in which a new future begins to stir. And it is as though the gravity of this future weighed upon the senses of the woman and drew her down from the freedom of life into the deep, humble service of motherhood.”1

Such an essentialist view as Rilke’s is perhaps a bit much for a modern post-feminist audience, so how are we to respond today to Rodin’s celebrated sculpture? Shown alongside Rodin’s Eve is the work of two contemporary photographers, Nicholas Sinclair and Iraida Icaza, who have each found fresh approaches to this figure. Whilst Sinclair was moved by the protective body language and Eve’s sense of shame, he was equally fascinated by the way the sculpture reflects and retains light due to the irregular modelling of the pitted and rippled surface. This he reads as expressing something of Eve’s inner turmoil. For him the sculpture is ambiguous, for at certain angles he felt uncertain as to whether he was looking at a male or female torso. This intensification of the musculature for emotional effect is a trait borrowed from Michelangelo and a characteristic that Sinclair has reflected when constructing his own compositions.

Frans von Stuck Sin
Frans von Stuck
Sin

Iraida Icaza’s first encounter with Rodin’s Eve was in a store room in the Southampton City Gallery, where the figure looked isolated and abandoned. Though struck by her vulnerability, Icaza noticed that the hands, feet and back were unusually large, giving the sculpture a masculine quality in the manner of Michelangelo’s androgynous figures. Subsequently bringing the piece up into the daylight Icaza became aware of the markings and slashes on the surface of the body. Suddenly Eve’s gestures that had, at first, seemed like shyness, appeared to be ones of defence and self protection. As Icaza began to take photographs on a large format camera in natural light she recognised that Eve was an archetype of the feminine – suffering and vulnerable – but that through her banishment she had grown into a fully fledged woman: potent, powerful and herself.

Within the modern world new myths and methods of subjugating women are continuously invented, particularly in places where fundamentalism reigns over individual autonomy and unregulated childbirth, rape, infantile death, poverty and warfare have to be contended with on a daily basis. For Rodin art could not be made except by ‘approaching truth’, but for him that truth was to be found in Nature. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are inclined to take a less Romantic view both of art and women; though there do seem to be valid and relevant readings of the withdrawn and bowed figure of Eve, ways of seeing her that can resonate with a contemporary audience. But it is not so much in the shame for her sins that we can identify but with the apparent despair of the hunched and huddled figure, the despair of women whose children are conceived and born in poverty and conflict and who have to struggle on a daily basis simply to survive in an unjust world. Rodin’s Eve is any woman and Everywoman who has ever loved and been abandoned, miscarried, had an abortion or lost a child. Her ambiguity and power are affirmations of the virtues of feminine profundity and testaments to its endurance.

Rodin All about Eve at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge from 23 September to 19 November 2006

1. Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin, 1903, translated by Jessie Lemont and Hans Trausil, London, The Grey Walls PtessLtd, 1946.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2006

Images maybe subject to copyright

Art Catalogues

Sophie Ryder

Catalogue Essay for an Exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

There is something of the wild child about Sophie Ryder, with her mass of pre-Raphaelite hair and her passion for running, which she does every day with her dogs. And it is this feral quality that is reflected in her art. It is an art that she has largely invented, for it owes little allegiance to contemporary schools or styles and can be traced in a direct line back to her first taste of jewellery-making as a child at Saturday morning art classes, where she learned to bend and shape little pieces of copper wire. Twisted wire, wet plaster and sawdust, along with old machine parts and bits of scavenged children’s toys are her basic materials. Her work is organic. Unconcerned about artistic movements, and disinterested in current theoretical debates, it is a response to the natural world and an expression of her internal one.

Sophie Ryder Sitting 2007
Sitting, 2007

As the child of a French mother, Jacqueline Bazin, and an English father, Wilfred Ryder, who owned and edited the Fleet Street Letter, she had a comfortably middle class, if somewhat Bohemian, upbringing. Summers were spent in the south of France at her mother’s house, Domaine de la Maurette, where Sophie ran free around the farm and the vineyard, not seeing the necessity of adopting clothes until she was nearly fifteen. Suspected childhood leukaemia disrupted her education. For long stretches in hospital she dreamt and drew obsessively. She knew she always wanted to be an artist and was not particularly interested in anything else. The death of her brother Mark in a car crash in France further disrupted the securities of her early years. Expelled from school, her education was crammed into twelve months when she took five ‘O’ levels and three ‘A’ levels at Dixon and Wolfe and Westminster Tutors to allow her to get into art school. Kingston Polytechnic and The Royal Academy Schools followed. Ryder was the youngest student after Turner ever to be admitted.

Now living in a remote corner of England near Cirencester with her photographer husband, Harry Scott, whom she met when she was seventeen, she practices, when not making art, the guitar with the same committed fervour that she applies to everything she does. This includes cooking whole food for her husband and two daughters, one of whom has just been allowed to leave school at sixteen to follow her own passion for music and singing. It is a life of making and doing. She has an aversion to television, to not being busy. Her routine is strict, her approach disciplined. These biographical details are not incidental; for the tone and tenor of Sophie Ryder’s life is reflected in her art. The two flow each into the other. Her life is not something separate or apart, but the well-spring from which her art is created.

Sophie Ryder Blue Eye 2007
Blue Eye, 2007

She is known for her hares and her work is often compared to that of Barry Flanagan, but the impetus is completely different, as it is to that of Joseph Beuys, for whom the hare became part of his shamanic mystical vocabulary. In 1989 Ryder was distressed, whilst visiting her mother’s house in France, to discover a hot and muggy shed used by the Moroccan farmer to breed rabbits. In the heat some of the rabbits had died; those that were still alive were hopping around among those that had expired. It seemed eerie and surreal and she felt compelled to record the experience in a series of drawings, ultimately resulting in her sculpture Temple to the 200 Rabbits 1999.

The hare, unlike the rabbit, has never really been domesticated but like the rabbit it has often been used as a symbol of fertility or rebirth, as well as of playful sexuality. In the Middle Ages it was thought to have transformative powers and it was believed that witches could turn themselves into hares. Long associated with the spring, the normally shy European Brown Hare changes its behaviour at that time of year when it can be seen ‘boxing’ in broad daylight or chasing others around meadows. Originally thought to be a competition between males to attain dominance, closer observation has revealed that this practice is usually a female hitting a male, either to show that she is not yet quite ready to mate, or as a test of his determination. It is this behaviour that gives us the term Mad March Hare. Within African folklore the hare is perceived as a trickster, in India and Japan it is the shape of a hare that is seen in the dark patches of the moon, rather than the face of a man, while the constellation Lepus is said to represent a hare. Unlike rabbits, hares do not live socially. They are loners. The young are born with fur and open eyes, while rabbits are naked and blind. Sophie Ryder, though, is not interested in creating replicas. She has said, “I sculpt characters and beings – the dogs, the hares, the Minotaurs are all characters beyond animal form”.

Sophie Ryder Paint Pots 2003
Paint Pots, 2003

In fact the hare has provided her with the perfect metaphor to discuss a complex range of human emotions, for the observant will see that the body of her sculptures is female – her body, in fact – whilst only the head is that of a hare. But her sculptures are no mere hybrids. For the heads are masks. And, as in ancient Greek drama, the mask has a potent role.

The theatre of Ancient Greece evolved from religious rites which date back to at least 1200 BCE. The Cult of Dionysus practised ritual celebrations which may have included alcoholic intoxication, orgies, human and animal sacrifices, and perhaps even hysterical rampages by women called maenads. Uninhibited dancing and emotional displays created an altered mental state known as ‘ecstasis1, from which the word ecstasy is derived. Dionysian, hysteria and catharsis also derive from Greek words for emotional release or purification. Ecstasy was an important religious concept to the Greeks, who came to see theatre as a way of expressing powerful emotions through ritual. The mask was central to this process, as well as a means of showing exaggerated emotion, while covering the actor’s individuality and protecting his identity. It is not too far-fetched to assume that the freeing of emotions and an element of ritual are involved in the making of these sculptures, along with the need to ‘mask’ or hide the self in some way.

In post-Freudian thinking the mask has other resonances. Freud developed his dream interpretation theory based on his model of the psyche. Dreams, he argued, are expressions of wishes originating in the id which the superego attempts to censor. In order to get its wishes across to the conscious mind and avoid censorship by the superego, the subconscious uses what Freud called ‘transformations.’ These transformations package the forbidden dream in what otherwise appears to the dreamer as innocent imagery in an attempt to resolve some inner conflict. Transformations are tools that the subconscious uses to mask what Freud called latent content’ by changing its appearance to manifest content; that is, what the dreamer literally sees in his dream.

Sophie Ryder Upside down Kneeling 2008
Upside down Kneeling, 2008

Through her use of hares Ryder has created an idiosyncratic iconography to talk about female desire, without having directly to reveal herself or make her work autobiographical. Whilst speaking of deep-seated drives, her figures, with the adoption of the hare mask, become universalised. Creating work on an heroic and often theatrical scale she has established a pantheon of Lady-Hares who are able to express not only intrinsic grief as in Introspective 2003, which was made as a response to 9/11, but also a vital and overt sexuality as in the receptive Kneeling 2006 and the prone Upside Down Kneeling 2008. By adopting a mask her figures can play out their transgressive impulses and explore their animal natures, as well as investigate that which is taboo. The hare can also be seen as a response to her earlier male figure of the Minotaur, himself half-bull and half-man, an image frequently used by Picasso to talk of male sexual prowess.

The dialectics of outside and inside, as expressed in Bachelard’s Poetics of Space,1 are explored along with ideas of being and non-being. Alienation and inclusion are also played out in these new large scale works where the viewer can literally climb inside the giant edifices, like a child re-entering the mother’s womb. The Minotaur and the Lady-Hare, therefore, suggest not only images of idealised lovers or mythic pairings but binary and warring opposites; the dark and light and the ying and yang within us all.

Sophie Ryder Minotaur and Lady Hare Torsos 2000
Minotaur and Lady Hare Torsos, 2000

In her excellent book From the Beast to the Blonde,2 Marina Warner talks of the symbolic importance of transformation within myths and fairy tales. “Whereas male beasts are cursed by some malignant force, the heroines of fairy tales are willingly bound by a spell; they frequently agree with alacrity to the change of outward form, in order to run away from the sexual advances of a father or other would-be seducer.” She adds,”this phenomenon of metamorphosis as liberty saturates the imagery of the tales and language in which they are conveyed; the animal disguise of the heroine equips her to enter a new territory of choice and speech; the apparent degradation works for her, not against her. Being a beast – a she-bear – can be preferable as a temporary measure to the constrictions of a woman’s shape. Animal form marks a threshold she passes over, before she can take control of her own identity.” Warner continues: “as an outcast, spurning the sexual demand made upon her, her disguises – donkey, cat, or bear – reproduce the traditional iconography of the very passion she is fleeing”. Animal hairiness, therefore, transmutes to become identified with both freedom and lust.

The shift from the figure of the fugitive girl, protecting her maidenhood dressed in animal disguise, becomes transformed into an image of sexuality. Hair, such as the long tresses of Mary Magdalen, becomes a veil to cover the shameful female form. Body hair becomes an image of lascivious intent and desire, reminding the viewer of our closeness to dumb animals and our innately chthonic natures. It can also be induced, along with the cessation of menses, by the denial of sexuality as in the case of young anorexics. From Rapunzel to Cinderella, with her glass slipper that was, in Perrault’s version, originally made of vair, fur or ermine, hair has become a symbol for unfettered female lust.

Sophie Ryder Crawling 1999
Crawling, 1999

The ears of Sophie Ryder’s hares might, then, be read as a metonym for tresses of hair (her own Pre-Raphaelite locks, perhaps). The hare mutates into an alter ego. Its hair-covered body becomes a visual symbol of the female desire hidden within, which equates with the figure of the viewer lurking hidden inside the centre of one of her huge sculptures. The sexual, bacchanalian dynamic of her work is, perhaps, most apparent in her drawings, where mask and human female body are clearly delineated. Her Girl Behaving Like a Dog 2008 or the figure in Upside Down Kneeling 2008 (who openly exposes her genitals) both display an abandoned sexuality.

Over the years the size, scale and ambition of Sophie Ryder’s works has increased with her technical prowess. She begins with an armature, which is the basic structure around which the sculpture is built. For the large pieces she welds thick steel rods to add extra strength. After that a layer of chicken wire is added onto which she starts to build up the shape with different thicknesses of twisted wire. When I visited her during the installation of this show, ‘pancakes’ of wire in different lengths and densities, some of them for ‘filling in’, some for creating large flowing areas, lay strewn around the gallery floor. Physically demanding, she treads on and at times throws herself against the wire to bend it to her will. It is only in the last few years that she has started working with assistants after finding that she was spending too much creative time doing what others could do.

In other of her modelled forms she works with plaster, slapping on great handfuls and then drawing her fingers through the wet mess, so that the plaster oozes between them and the surface texture is defined by the pulled lines. These rough surfaces and grooves remain even when cast in bronze. Now with her recent large scale Upside Down Kneeling 2008 she has broken new visual ground. The wire ‘skin’ of the hare is much less dense, leaving the supporting armature visible in the manner that pencil lines might be left to indicate an artist’s thinking in a drawing. The work has a new monumentality. It is no longer simply a hare but something architectural; a dwelling that can be entered and walked through.

Sophie Ryder Eye 2005
Eye, 2005

For the YSP exhibition she has also made a number of new wire drawings, a technique she devised some fifteen years ago that has its genesis in those far off Saturday morning jewellery-making classes. Her earlier wire drawings from the mid ’90s, such as her Mother and Child, 1995, were comparatively simple affairs, where one twist of wire created the drawing’s outline. Those she makes now are dependent on a greater degree of technical skill and are stylistically much more complex. Bending, twisting and compressing wire, which is anchored against the vertical surface of the wall, she uses wire like graphite or charcoal, both to create a fluid line, as well as to build up dark areas of density. Using untreated, annealed wire she has, for this exhibition, largely focused on body parts; her daughter’s eye or her own hands where the fingers of one hand emerge through the centre of a clenched fist like the sepals from the middle of a flower. Her huge Dog Feet, 2005 show every detail; the claws embedded in their soft leathery pads, as well as the fringe of bristles that protect them.

Whilst there is, by definition, something deeply anthropomorphic about Sophie Ryder’s figures onto which both she and the viewer can project human emotions such as desire, love, dejection and tenderness, when placed in the generous landscape of Yorkshire Sculpture Park her work is suddenly freed from the constraints of the white cube. Sited outside, her figures become feral and are returned to their bestial selves. Untamed by the constraints of the gallery they assume a wild dignity.

Sophie Ryder Dog Feet 2005
Dog Feet, 2005

Sophie Ryder’s hares, therefore, are shape-shifters, hairy anarchic creatures able to express all that is free and forbidden by the conditions of socialised behaviour. Their transformations suggest powerful magic, their coats something profane. Hair becomes a barometer of freedom; for when it is controlled, tied back and groomed, it is a hallmark of cultural restraint and the mores of civilisation. Liberty, on the other hand, wears her hair loose, in wild tresses.

Hair has become a potent metaphor for many contemporary women artists. In the work of the surrealist Meret Oppenheim a fur tea cup stood as a statement about the expression of female sexuality, while in the late Helen Chadwick’s Loop My Loop 1991, the dual aspects of sexuality – the Madonna and the whore – which are at the core of so many fairy tales and traditional images of women, were rendered as a disturbing oxymoron when locks of blond hair were entwined within a knot of glistening pink pig gut. In the tales of the surrealist Leonora Carrington or those by Angela Carter, the beast represents not only female desire, but nascent creativity and self-expression. Sophie Ryder, with her exuberant and anarchic hares rejects the groomed beauty and easy stereotypes of modern femininity; the lovely girl, the sex pot, the good wife and mother, for the wild, playful and untameable animal she affirms and recognises within herself.

Sophie Ryder at Yorkshire Sculpture Park from 24 May 2008 to 2 November 2008

1
Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space, Beacon Books Massachusetts, 1969

2 Marina Warner: From the Beast to the Blonde, Chatto & Windus London, 1994

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2008

Images © Sophie Ryder 1999-2008

Art Catalogues

Sean Scully

Catalogue Essay for the Exhibition at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London

The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when needed
Rothko

beginnings:
Exile can be a fertile state for an artist, with its sense of not quite belonging, of being ‘on the edge’, of not fitting into the accepted mainstream. Picasso and Modigliani left their homelands for Paris. Nabokov and Joseph Conrad adopted new languages. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, both émigrés, caught the essential Irish soul from a distance. Born in Dublin in 1945, Sean Scully and his family took a boat across the Irish Sea, still filled with war-time mines, to find work in England. What significance, I want to know when we meet, did his Irish background have on his decision to become a painter?

Sean Scully Wall of Light Red Day Leaving 2005
Wall of Light Red Day Leaving, 2005

His earliest memories are of living in one room at 82 Highbury Hill, north London. Life revolved around his convent school, St. Joseph’s, and the Catholic Church. There is something almost prelapsarian about the description of his “little world” with its intimate backdrop of music, story-telling and Irish craic. His grandmother was a part-time pub-singer at the Highbury Barn and had a constant stream of itinerant Irish workers lodging in the place she rented for 5s a week from the butcher in Holloway Road. His mother performed torch songs in the local vaudeville theatre. “Unchained Melody” was a favourite. Theatre provided glamour in an otherwise bleak and bomb-ravaged London. Vic and Nan, who were also in show business, lived in the room next door. He was a transvestite comedian. Jewish and childless, Vic provided an endless source of good-natured humour for the young Sean. Sean’s uncle was a heavy weight boxer who died an untimely death in a gutter outside a pub. His father, as a lad, had been in the Arsenal Junior team and had wanted to turn professional but his mother needed him to go out and work. He became an itinerant barber and worked a seven day week just to make ends meet. Sean’s parents had ambitions for him. He was good at model making. In the 50s children made statuettes from rubber moulds filled with plaster of Paris. Sean Scully had two, one of the Virgin Mary and the other of a rabbit. In his games they often dated, and once or twice even got married. When he was six he also became a dab hand at making up songs and thought he might become an architect when he grew up.

Sean Scully Dark Mirror 2006
Dark Mirror, 2006

Church was home from home. When it rained you could hear it thundering on the tin roof. Inside it smelt of incense. The walls were decorated with pictures of the Station of the Cross. This was his first real taste of art.

reparations:
The nuns did not approve of Scully senior working on Sundays and told the son that the devil would move in under his bed. An imaginative child he was traumatised and became terrified of the dark. He still is. He was taken out of school and then sent to one in Gillespie Road. The Catholic school had been full of life, love and laughter but Gillespie Road was a dead thing. The difference, he says, between black and white and red and grey A woman of extreme positions, his mother turned against the church. The period at 82 Highbury Hill represents a golden age. He describes it as if it were a lost Eden. Everyday he walked to school with his two cousins and felt safe in the locality. Later the family moved to Sydenham, south London, by the gas works and all harmony seemed to break down. In Islington there had been a wealth of Irish and Jewish culture. South London represented the mean streets. It was fight or be beaten by the older, tougher boys. But Scully had a strong spirit and wouldn’t back down. Often he came off worst. But he no longer felt the encompassing warmth of the church. He had lost his spiritual matrix.

So what, I ask him, is he trying to repair, to reconfigure, in his paintings? Something profound, human and permanent, he suggests. He also has an obsession with light. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that the threat of the Devil under his childhood bed has something to do with it.

Sean Scully Black Moon 2006
Black Moon, 2006

The London in which Scully grew up was full of post-war mess and filth; some of the streets were still lit by gas lamps so that the smoggy urban cityscape often seemed to resemble a Turner or a Monet. His was a wild youth. He worked as a messenger, a plasterer, ran a discotheque, sang in a band with his brother and got into trouble with the police for brawling and burglary before going to Croydon College and then on to art school in Newcastle. And his boyhood experiences of the Church left him with a deep ambivalence for organised religion along with a hunger, a longing for something to take its place. This longing is embedded in the warp and weft of his art.

reframing:
It is perhaps this quality that makes him, in this late postmodern age, a Modernist. He considers that careerism is rampant and that much of the art world has been hijacked by manipulating Sophists. For him the bigger picture is, all too often, lost and art is in danger of becoming an adjunct to sociology. He describes idealism and humanity as having been “parked in a lay-by with a flat tyre”. Everything now is about the surface. But art which is too directly solipsistic, he feels, is in danger of becoming self-indulgent and sentimental.

Sean Scully Manus 2006
Manus, 2006

So can painting still be a meaningful language? Or has it, as we have been told so often, run its course? Is there anything left for a painter to say in this digital age? We live in a time, he suggests, that sucks the guts out of everything. When Coca-Cola is sung about in Blues form, then you know form is finished. Yet somehow painting resists. It has a stubbornness, an impenetrability that allows for the possibility of regeneration and renewal.

As a young man he was influenced by Greenberg but felt, instinctively, that such a formalist approach would ‘crash and burn’. He acknowledges, too, a debt to the Abstract Expressionists, to Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko; though he feels there is a gap between him and the Americans. Perhaps, I suggest, he is too European. He agrees. He loves the domesticity of scale of Vuillard and there are obvious connections between the two artist’s palettes; the beige and greys, the putty colours. Making small paintings, he says, puts him in touch with the European humanist tradition. Abstract Expressionism was about the heroic. His own work is fundamentally philosophic, metaphorical and romantic. Greenberg came from a metaphysical position but, he feels, attempted to turn his ideas into a formula. From Greenberg’s perceptive modern art achieved autonomy through a process of abstraction in which there was a gradual removal of all that was regarded as decorative and inessential. But art, Scully suggests, is not that easy. Greenberg’s failing was that he tried to take the pain out of it. For Scully potential failure is built into the process of painting. He might well be echoing the sentiments of the poet Paul Valery who, when asked how he knew a poem was finished, answered that it was never so much finished as ‘abandoned’. Sean Scully paints, in effect, the same painting again and again because he continually seeks the human, the tender and the poignant. The humanity of imperfection is woven into the painting’s fabric. The essence of Modernism lies in the ability of a discipline to criticize itself, to be self-aware. To make work is to go on a voyage of discovery. The journey is more important than any notion of arrival or ‘success’. Sam Beckett’s sanguine words slip into the mind: “Fail again, fail better”.

Sean Scully Shenandoah 2006
Shenandoah, 2006

Our talk turns to Morandi and I say that I have always considered his bottles to be anthropomorphic, to be metaphors for human relationships. I suggest that something similar occurs between Scully’s own stripes and rectangles; that these express, in abstract form, something about human feeling. What he always wanted to achieve, he says, was a fusion of the classical and the emotional. In his twenties he didn’t know how to do it. He wanted, somehow, to combine the qualities of Mondrian and Pollock He immersed himself in Zen. He is Karate black belt. Gradually he began to paint shapes imbued with character and life. In 1969, after a summer of travelling, he made his first true stripe painting, Morocco, from glued blue, black and yellow stripes of dyed cloth cut to hang down against the white wall. This ‘window’ was to be the precursor to the inserted panels found in many of his later paintings. Masking tape was used to create taught grids, cages of horizontal and vertical lines that created tight spatial fields of woven colour and complex depths of field. At the time he felt isolated in the artistic provincialism of London and moved to New York. In the 60s America seemed to be about the future, it offered hope, a new utopia. He became seduced by the night-time city and its geometry of lights, though now he feels he could not live there full time.

Sean Scully Fire 2006
Fire, 2006

He wanted to make something deeper, less decorative than the complex tartan webs which had been preoccupying him. So he metaphorically “burnt down his own house”. What was left was the colour of ash. It was a new beginning. The 70s paintings, were in the strictest sense, classical minimalism, reminiscent in their stillness and spiritual quietitude to the work of Agnes Martin. He used masking tape to create canvases of horizontal and verticals lines of dense dark colour. Everything extraneous was erased. These might have been the paintings of a Buddhist monk. But Scully is a natural colourist. A big man, you might take him for a boxer or a bouncer rather than a painter. Eventually he rejected these self-imposed constraints. He has talked, before, of the sensuality of painting, of how his work is imbued with sexual energy, how it is a manifestation of his tactile and physical relationship with the world. He paints with his guts and his heart. There is a visceral quality, a relationship with the glop and stuff of paint that provides its own poetics, its own dialectic, beyond any theories about form. Something of this life-force seeps from behind and around the edges of his rectangles. It is as if his grid-like geometric structures had been superimposed on something more profound, something primitive and chthonic. Each block might either be interpreted as a cancellation, a textual erasure or, alternatively, a tabula rasa; it is as if in their varying arrangements meaning is both cancelled and sought in a continuous process of investigation and understanding.

Sean Scully Wall of Light Red Green 2006
Wall of Light Red Green, 2006

And the size of a painting, I ask, how is that arrived at? He makes different drawings and sketches and then goes with what he feels he can best do at that moment. It depends on whether he wants to reach out with ambition or to be more personal, more introspective. He will then draw, like Matisse, with carbon on the end of a stick so that he can see what he is doing. He works flat, making a proposition and then putting down the colour. He leaves that to dry. At this stage the work has something of the quality of varnished watercolour. It is then that he can look at it and start to make changes. The form is set but colour evolves as he goes along. There are always options to be considered. The final layer is painted wet onto wet. As he works the gaps between the rectangles take on a profound poignancy, emanating emotional vibrations that are at the heart of each painting. Colour is his hallmark, his finger-print. The relationship to it can’t be rushed. You can’t force it. It grows out of the experience of both painting and living. There is a moment when you suddenly realise the incredible tenderness of a certain grey against grey. Something has to be built, to be learnt to express that tenderness. You can, he suggests, have two sorts of career in the art world. An early career where you burst onto the scene and which might not last or a long slow unfolding. What interests him is his relationship not with art magazines or curators but with his work. The worst thing an artist can do is to loose the ability to be profound or noble. The sorrow of things is what touches him. We each pay a price for what we do, for who we are. This is Sean Scully’s territory.

Such sentiments are not fashionable in an age of fracture, of instantaneous celebrity where surface matters more than depth. Longing and a sense of something beyond this material world fills these paintings. Sean Scully is a romantic exile, a modernist in a postmodern age. In The Postmodern Condition Lyotard writes:

Sean Scully Small Blue Light Wall 2006
Small Blue Light Wall, 2006

I shall call modern the art that devotes its ‘little technical expertise’, as Diderot used to say, to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something that can be conceived and that can neither be seen nor made visible: that is what is at stake in modern painting… The postmodern [by contrast] would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a state that would make it possible to share the collective nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable

Sean Scully strives for what is authentic, for that which is often unpresentable and cannot be said. He understands that art which can touch and reach out, art that is important – that is not simply a fashionable flash-the-pan but exists outside history – is not achieved simply by creating something that is accomplished, beautiful, polished or perfect. On the contrary it is arrived at by striving for what is true, for seeking that sense of the unpresentable that haunts all presence and in so doing humbly accepting the inbuilt human failures of such a project. To recognise this is what Roland Barthes referred to as the punctum. The wound. Reparation is sought in the tear that cannot ever quite be mended. Its acknowledgement requires that most human of emotions, empathy. The gaps between Sean Scully’s forms, as with Barnett Newman’s, open up a space for the sublime, a space where that sense of being in the moment is understood, as in oriental philosophy, as the Eternal Now.

Sean Scully at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London from 22 December 2006 to 20 January 2007

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2006

Images © Sean Scully 2006