The art audience has moved away from totalising world views and the hunt for transcendence. Contemporary painting, seen as haunted by divergent sign systems, is dissected by hawkish observers (or lazy connoisseurs). Excitement is generated by the paradoxes, absurdities and contradictions of combining opposing visual forms and languages, with distracted attention lingering where the hard edge melts into languid biomorphic reverie. As if the meeting of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, ‘low’ and ‘high’ could produce an almost physical jolt! An artist takes up a set of historical tropes, juggles them for a moment, and let’s them all crash to the floor or the picture plane, splintering the history of art into yet another thousand tiny fragments…
Forgive the immediate digression but something like these thoughts came to mind as I pondered Elizabeth Neel’s new paintings and sculptures at the Pilar Corrias Gallery on Eastcastle Street, running parallel to the north side of Oxford Street.
Neel’s paintings are made by spraying-painting over masking tape, which is then removed. Left behind is a suggestive architecture of negative spaces or grids on which she hangs a gestural painterly attack – inferring the vulgarity, violence and frailty of the body. And it is an attack! Thankfully lacking in anything too tasteful, there are skids, slides, scrubs, flurries and steamy outbursts of paint that career across otherwise unsettling expanses of white canvas. Or perhaps these painterly organic shock waves appear hemmed in by the grid – pinned somehow inside spray-painted amorphous templates, deliberately abused, defaced and obliterated? These sprayed on outlines work to interesting effects in ‘Look Return Look Between Wing and Fence’.
Looking closer there are problems. Each painting in the ground floor gallery revolves around a central expanse of what is more or less a single primary colour surrounded (and dominated) by the harsh white of the canvas. The central colour is muddied to become suggestive of bodily secretions or limbs in motion. But without modulation with colour contrasts the potential of the energy unleashed is deadened, so that the action erupts rather repetitively in the central area. Somewhere between Tapies and Richard Hamilton’s ‘Hers is a Lush Situation’, are these demented diagrams rather than paintings?
In the basement gallery sculptures stand and lay and lean about, like a strange flat-pack kit without instructions. They suggest a set of propositions rather than worked through and resolved sculptural entities. It is unclear if the three paintings hung here (that share a blue-green-brown colour scheme) join with the sculptures as players in a single installation piece. But ironically the paintings here seem to be more complete and spatially dynamic than those on the ground floor, despite their limited palette. Perhaps because there is more variation in paint handling. Drips and streams of paint move towards the edges of the canvas in every direction suggesting the painting has been worked on from every side, from which gestures and shapes arise that are more protean and alive. They dominate the floor based objects. Half-formed grids are neatly laid out, panels and wire boxes punctuated by the skull of some mammal or other. Incongruous organic entities such as disheveled plaster hunks pierced by kebab skewers are lined up on a tidy ply box. Are we to look to the paintings here for clues as to the objects’ potential for transformation? No answers are forthcoming…
It is the paintings that hold court here. They have energy and movement, even if it can feel listless and uneasy… Does Neel’s physicality, inference of the body and extreme materiality allow a glimpse beyond the received representations of ourselves and our world that are ceaselessly manufactured and displayed to us via the net or a walk down Oxford Street? Or does she leave us in a state of agitated unrest, tapping out the beats in an unresolved bio-mechanical ghost dance?
‘Elizabeth Neel: The People, The Park, The Ornament’ is on at Pilar Corrias until the 20th of June.