Standing Your Ground

An essay for an artist's talk at The House of St Barnabas, 24th March 2017.

Since starting to explore legs in my paintings I have been revelling in the multifarious puns involved both in terms of our physical agency and the formal concerns of making a painting. We stand on the ground, we are grounded in history and context, and the ground in painting is the surface for preparation, the place we face at the start of a painting and the thing that we come back to at the end. 

These three paintings were made for this show, ‘The Other Side”. 

The stuff of this site was my material, object and spatial information, literally: the wall, the room, its furniture and its identities, functions and history. I imagined all the things that might happen here: Dancing, meeting, eating, talking, waiting, negotiating, arguing.

These walls of oatey textured silk presented the opportunity to take the ground further, offering me a stand in for the skin that's missing in these painted legs, that are actively too ruddy, washed out or cartoonish. This gifted me a chance to explore my use of the exposed primed surface.

By reflecting the elements in the room, (the rug, the table,) back, in shifted tilted perspectives I am trying to affect our position, our stance. I am taking a stand. I wanted to make it harder to be passive in here. Faced with a sensualised maze of limbs where the mirrored rug pattern and palette is used to fill in the in betweens. The toes nearly meet, curling into one another, fitting like an almost puzzle. Painting a rug is a puzzle. 

The choreography in these paintings seemed to reveal itself diagrammatically like a game of twister. - “where could this limb go next?” I like the way Paul’s curation seems to mimic this.

The table is dominant here, a platform where opulent private dinners could happen or a meeting about something quiet but important could be held. There is the possibility of late night leglessness and table dancing. Feet on the table, rude, naughty, rebellious. It is a lively party that ends on the table. I left enough white space for potential leg ups and leg overs. 

The legs becoming the meal was a fun development whilst making the painting. I began to imagine that this room was from another time, something like Tudor, where things unravelled, as does the line in the painting, escaping into a direct drawn mark describing the limbs broken free. Thinking on Manet's still life ‘The ham’ 1875, in its directness simplicity and manner of execution, the legs became meaty reflexive fragments, hammed up stand ins for people who got carried away and served themselves up on platters, made a meal of themselves.

Salle calls it ‘transformational grammar’ “the way things in art stand in for or turn into other things or absorb other things into themselves. Call it visual synecdoche” he says. He means using a part to represent a whole. I find that this is most effective if it's taken as far as it can go. That is why I added the garnish. It’s funny. The smattering of peas and brown carrots like left overs, emphasises the ridiculousness of the independent limbs. I wanted to transmute them, temporarily liberating them from the constraints of the carrying of torsos, the meetings, the drudging to freewheeling, mobile bodies. They are footloose. It’s a parody of control: getting your feet under the table. But, as their tone implies, they are over done. Hot footed. Cooked.

In contrast, in ‘Circle of trust’ the legs are more unified, painted from the view of the table perhaps. Exposing a vacant space in the centre of them implies the shape of a rug but also leaves space for silence or speech - a stand in for a voice. It's a stand off. They side step and sit, fidget and cross legs. Body language speaks for them.

You could say, the legs have become an obsession— they repeat out of compositional necessity, stacking meaning upon meaning upon meaning. It is easy to get carried away. To run away with myself. I try to stay grounded.

Sickert described the ‘preparation’ as a jumping off point, saying 

“it serves as a diving-board.”  

With Franz Hals and Constable, the ground is a mere coat of havana that transmutes the canvas into a dark chocolate bar.  Renoir, who had previously painted on china, used a coat of white; Whistler, a coat of grey.

Sickert put it so well:

“it is the interaction of this ground with the painting proper that we rely on. To use the housepainter’s expression, the ground ‘grins through’.”

Titian leans on the white grounds for luminosity. So then white grounds become a stand in for light, a portal. Here, it becomes a symbolic centre left unpainted. The daydreaming space in the meeting. The distance between people at the table despite their proximity. It represents the things not said. Not painted. Unfulfilled. Unfilled. 

The ground as absence is something I became interested in after viewing Rembrandt’s anatomy lesson of Dr. Deijman 1656, where the ‘hole’ in the cadaver’s chest is represented by the exposed Cologne earth and bone black ground. In Meeting, the gesso white is a stark representation of the canvas itself, declaring I am a painting, I am a window, I am the other side. In itself it stands for the pond of potential painting, possible next moves, a space to dive into, the circle of bodies forming a bank and an edge, dipping their toes in.

I wanted to record myself reading this to be played in place of me standing here. They wanted me to stand here. And I didn't stand my ground.

Increasingly, I am interested in the overlooked intimacy of being interviewed or presenting my work. Artists talks feel performative. The visual language is extended or limited according to what the artist wears, their hair colour, their style, their dialect, their shoes, their leggings, their legs. 

I might wear jeans to dinner. No one will see anyway, my legs will be under the table.

I'd better stand down. After all, this is not stand up…is it?