Shelia Girling

Art Catalogues

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

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