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Curiosity unsatisfied

Mari Lassnig
Serpentine Gallery, until 8 June Alison Watt: Phantom
National Gallery, until 29 June

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

Mari Lassnig
Serpentine Gallery, until 8 June

Alison Watt: Phantom
National Gallery, until 29 June


When I first saw the card for Maria Lassnig’s show I thought it was just another young or middle-aged artist trying it on. Then I discovered that Lassnig was born in 1919, and I wanted to know more. Had she always painted with this level of crude energy? Was her naive expressionist brushwork developed and refined over a lifetime? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell from her current solo show (the first of her work in Britain). Far from being anything like a retrospective survey — or indeed an introduction to an unknown artist — the work has been restricted to paintings produced in the past eight or nine years. The exception is in the selection of short animated films running on a screen in the foyer which mostly date from the 1970s. These, from the sampling I gave them, seem quite witty and inventive. Is it then legitimate to assume that Lassnig’s best earlier work is in the medium of film, and her best recent work in paint? Perhaps.

The catalogue does not illustrate any comparative material from earlier years, similarly restricting itself to recent paintings and beguiling film stills. So it is impossible to make an assessment of Lassnig’s new work in the context of her career, and my curiosity remains unsatisfied. Never mind, what I saw at the Serpentine does not make me want to rush out and circle the globe in pursuit of her earlier work. The first painting you see is a nude self-portrait holding one gun to her head and pointing another at you. In these days of ignorance and ineptitude, Lassnig’s vigorous alla prima daubings look quite passable. But there is no passion here — at least no passion that communicated itself to me. I found the whole experience of seeing this show oddly perplexing. The speedy caricatural drawing, the bright acidic colours, the awkwardness — these might be paintings by an art student who has yet to experience life, not by a mature artist now in her 90th year. They are not life-enhancing nor do they express any joy in paint; but neither are they powerful enough to be life-denying. They’re just rather flat and grotesque. The show simply doesn’t explain this Viennese artist’s high standing in Europe and America.

At the National Gallery is something very different. The use of drapery as a means of expression in art has been common since the advent of Greek sculpture. Then, as portrait painting became popular, there were more and more acres of drapery to paint. For some it became a specialism, like carpentry or needlework. Fashionable portraitists in the 18th century, such as the great Allan Ramsay, employed a drapery painter to fill in the less important areas of clothing. Traditionally, drapery painting was something of a lowly calling, specialised but subsidiary. In the more puritan modern period, drapery became an accepted site for ornament and pattern, where the artist could be frankly decorative without encountering too much criticism. In recent years, one or two artists have specialised in painting fabric (think of the richly worked stuffs of Thérèse Oulton), but few have attempted drapery as such. I remember visiting Euan Uglow in his studio just after he’d finished a modern drapery painting, ‘Dehydrated Pear with Drapery’ (1992–3), in which the lower portion of the canvas laid on panel was peppered with the punctures from dividers as Uglow strove to depict the different planes of the cloth. It’s an unusual painting, an experiment that was not repeated.

Alison Watt (born 1965) has been painting drapery since the 1990s. She first made her name as a figure painter but apparently it worried her to be painting people in a traditional way, so she purged her work of the human presence. Her paintings now suggest body parts and apertures (nostril, gape, cleft, rima) in a distinct and often deliberately sexualised way, but there is no figure beneath the expanse of cloth. The cloth itself has become skin. For the past two years, she has had a studio in the National Gallery, making work from the collection and has been the NG’s seventh Associate Artist. The practice of having an artist in residence is a fruitful one, and allows all sorts of links and references and interpretations of the past by the present. Watt has developed a strong relationship with Zurbarán’s remarkable painting ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’ (1635–9), and this is currently hung at the opening to her show. Her exhibition consists of five large paintings in the main Sunley Room, with another large canvas and a small one, hung near the Zurbarán in the corridor area.

The paintings look elegant and cool from a distance, but up close the surfaces are less attractive. Predominantly white, they are painted in a palette ranging through Payne’s grey to yellow ochre, cadmium red and burnt sienna. (In this they remind me of the short story by Anatole France of a monk dreaming of God. He’s been told that God is white, but in his dream he sees a great wheel of light and each section is a different colour. Only when the wheel turns fast do the colours blend into white light.) In the subdued lighting of an overcast day, on grey walls, Watt’s paintings looked cold and clinical, despite the folds and hollows and openings so suggestive of warm flesh. I find them very difficult to like. At first glance, these pictures seem to be about shadow and substance, but actually they’re about absence.

Down in Dorset, at The Study Gallery of Modern Art in Poole (until 15 May), is an intriguing collaborative project between a painter, a film-maker and a musician. The painter is Day Bowman, whose work I have been following with interest for 20 years, the film-maker Ian Knox, and the musician is the jazz drummer Steve Harris, whose recent tragic death makes this exhibition something of a memorial to him. I haven’t seen the show (which apparently involves an installation of maritime detritus collected locally), but I like the idea behind it — to explore the threshold between land and sea, those areas of what is often wasteland or semi-industrial decay. Called ‘The WaterZones Project’, it features Bowman’s paintings inspired by quays and oil drums, gasometers and reactors, and the fortress-like sea defences that prop up our coastline. The grittiness of the subject is transformed and interpreted by art, but, in the case of Bowman’s paintings, reality keeps breaking in, and her usual abstract idiom is for the first time invaded by figurative imagery. You glimpse in her work the rusting hulks of containers, the vacant lots you might see from a train window. The effect is not as depressing as it sounds, but strangely heartening.


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