Fearless Allegories about Painting
Every artist’s work should stake out a position—that a painting is not only a painting but also the representation of an idea about painting. That is one reason there is so little contradiction now between abstract and representational painting: In both cases, the painting is there not to represent the image; the image exists in order to represent the painting.... [This makes every painting], whether abstract or representational, into a kind of allegory of painting.1
There is a popular idea that the invention of the camera in the mid-19th century anticipated the end of painting as an art form that represented the real world on canvas, liberating the serious painter to explore abstraction and formal issues of space, form, gesture and colour.
Of course, it is a theory that ignores a history of non-figurative western art that includes 1,500 years of Byzantine and Medieval manuscripts, and also the reality that a photograph is just as removed as a painting is from the real world in its representation of our experiences of it. Holiday photographs may recall an important event or moment but the firsthand experience of light, scale or space, and the substance of the occasion remains absent.
Indeed, a photograph is, more or less, occupying much of the terrain of painting. American art critic and art historian, Barry Schwabsky maintains that if there is a necessary explanation as to why painting became self-conscious about the notion of a divide between the figurative and abstract then the origins of such an idea reside in the theories of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). He deducted that our experience of reality is comprehended through:
Not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The “thing in itself” is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The perceiving mind... is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette, and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them. Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow corresponds to the features of the sitter.2
Whether he could have imagined it or not, Kant’s theory provides an explanation as to why, in spite of the global proliferation of digital images in the 21st century, painting retains a status that is centred upon its egalitarian attitude towards figuration and abstraction.
This familiarity with the visual conversations and arguments that take place between representation and formalism is fundamental to Rachael Dewhirst’s painting. Her work embodies a certainty in its comprehension of painting as a specific way of making art that has its own means of representation.
It should come as no surprise to learn that when Dewhirst held her first solo exhibition in 2012 the scale of her painting was fundamental to its success. She recalls: ‘From the scale, realisation and excitement in the making of those works I knew I could have a career as an artist. I see the potential of painting as limitless. I am never entirely sure what to do with a new series of work because there are too many options. I am always wanting to find a different way of working and this usually happens when I realise I have stopped experimenting and am just repeating what I’ve done before.’
Dewhirst discusses her work with an intuitive and comprehensive appreciation of the unique nature of painting and the qualities of the painted image. The subjectivity of an image and its potential narratives in a favourite work such as La Mer (2015), are fundamental to its success. Taking its theme from the landscape she experienced visiting France in 2014 Dewhirst remains speculative as to what might be taking place on the surface of the picture plane, celebrating its ambiguities and its certainties: ‘There is both a flatness and depth to La Mer in its treatment of form and space, and that blue shape in the foreground could be a whale’s tail or not. La Mer is a really abstract painting - but also a landscape of the Mediterranean. It may not be a detailed representation of the Mediterranean but for me, it does evoke the kind of emotional content of that environment. That’s how I experienced it. In terms of bringing this image to resolution, those marks and shapes around the edges, hold it all together. I use to think that resolving the work meant that there was always so much to still do on it, but just a dot of paint and the work can be complete.’3
There is a generosity to this consideration of what a painting is capable of doing and what it might be seeking to represent. It is an attitude that Dewhirst shares with American fauve artist Milton Avery (1885-1965), a painter whose work influenced and anticipated the pure formalism and gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s.
Although travelling to France in 2014 with the initial intention of gaining first-hand experience of the painting of Henri Matisse (1869- 1954), she admits to her surprise in discovering that her first encounter with the reality of his paintings was in their formalism, rather than naturalism. The
experience of the colours of his landscapes did not seem to be the colours of his painting. In fact, of greater interest was her discovery of the paintings of Pablo Picasso: ‘Picasso was of more interest than Matisse. I could see that he had a real interest in applying paint in different ways to the surface. Like Joan Miro, I like that aspect of European Modernism, using colour and form in a way that for painting, is always about the exploration of the process of painting. It is an immersive experience and for me it happened when I began working on a large scale.’4
In Tryphena (2016), the expansive scale of Dewhirst’s painting directs its attention between figures of birds, trees, aerial maps and landforms in painterly colours and luminous gestures and washes that give substance to a refined and tangible reality – one that comprises the act of painting and an idea that gives affirmation and vision to our experiences of life.
In this work and other recent paintings like Croissant La Plague (2016), Dewhirst’s consideration of the relationships between colour, gesture and figuration has acquired a newfound confidence. In Croissant La Plague overlapping forms, patterns, hues and objects acknowledge their genesis in a series of digital collaged prints that she has worked on over the past two years, developed from cutting and pasting images and fragments of photographs from Vogue magazine. The immediacy and detail of the photographic content of these works retain their own aesthetic formalism, distinct from a photograph’s responsibilities to represent a record of the real world: ‘I started the prints when I was looking at Matisse. I was cutting from Vogue magazine, looking for patterns and ten collage works became digital prints. These were more directly figurative than my paintings and in some ways, I read them as separate - the digital prints and then my paintings, but I am reading both now as a single body of work.’5
Croissant La Plague and other recent works are also based on sketches and studies on linen and accompanying photographs. Dewhirst admits that they represent a different approach to making and resolving work. While she retains a democratic approach to the range of marks she is capable of making in a single painting - impasto, broad and gestural, rhythmical and patterned, or wide sweeping washes of colour wet-on-wet on the surface of the canvas - her painting are informed by passages that are specific in their detail and figurative qualities, located and reconciled alongside bold abstract forms and motifs: ‘When I initially started painting I just wanted to learn various techniques of painting with colour, shapes and form, making such images look complete. I really love the process of painting. Of course, you always doubt the success of each work, but I never falter in my confidence. When you are painting a lot happens almost by chance and you need to
walk away and then come back. Sit with it for a few weeks. There are croissants and checker- patterns in the most recent paintings I have done and these seem right. I will work on fifteen paintings all at once. Four or five just isn’t enough as other ideas for other paintings come up while you are working, so you always have to have others to work on. For me, the best work is made when I don’t care. That is; not being too precious about the painting. I have to be fearless.6
Dr. Warren Feeney
1 Barry Schwabsky, Painting as a New Medium, http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n1/pdfs/schwabsky.pdf 2 Ibid
3 Rachael Dewhirst, interview, 17 May 2016
5 Ibid 6 Ibid