Into the Light

Bruce Russell writes:

For fifteen or so years, I have followed Lisa Wright’s work as it has developed its psychological themes and pictorial language. Central to her oeuvre, and parallel to its public emergence, has been the recording in paint of her children as they grew in the world.

Already this sets a too limited and personal cast on an experience we have all shared – of childhood and youth’s joys and travails of evanescent innocence and incipient knowledge. The great skill of Wright is to describe this rite of passage of common memory in figurative paintings whose vigorous painterliness and plangent colouristic harmonies, anchored in fluent, secure draughtsmanship, evoke historical as well as more recent models. My personal list would include Ribera, Manet, Millais, Wilson Steer, Redon and Bacon, right up to – inevitably – the Chapmans. There are also intriguingly haunting echoes of that late Victorian school of outdoor nude photography of gambolling youths, whose conflicted gaze precursed so many of our obsessions with nascent sexuality. But these paintings are very much of today with their graphic, almost filmic syntax of juxtapositions of tone, heat and temper, both intimately personal and archetypally universal.

In all of her pictures, from the early studies of infants at play in streams and fields (herCornwalldomain?) to these new more symbolically infused stagings of woods, heaths and glades (where the shade of Shakespeare rather than, say, Hardy is invoked) Wright suggests and alludes – through her limpid technique – to states of mind, whilst avoiding the literal limitations of specific, detailed description, the sentimentalizing trap to which much Pre-Raphaelite work in this genre succumbed.

Crucially, Wright counters the intoxicating illusionism of the “literary” content of the work with a sobering – but sensual – emphasis on the very materiality of its making: in the facture of surface, the topography of paint, the raw energy of gesture, the physical trace of brushing, scumbling and cursing, leaving a record of physical intent, the mutually contigent interplay of hand and eye. In so doing, she rescues the image from any hint of mere “illustration” (and by extension, sentimentality), and asserts the sovereign power of painting (or drawing) as an object in itself. The warp and weft of canvas is avowed, not denied, and the edge of a painting’s picture plane is a two-inch cliff face onto our non-fictional world, a reality traduced by the flattening of a catalogue reproduction.

Wright’s new paintings particularly create powerful psychological atmospheres, poised ambivalently between exultation and something close to anxiety. She invites us to enter a world on the threshold of the eidetic and mnemonic, the ethereal and material. We do so as both observers and participants, likely to experience the depicted scene both through the empathy of our own remembered childhoods, and from the point of view of parents, perhaps. And, of course, there is the possibility (probability?) of our own voyeuristic engagement, conflicted as we are in our contemporary prurient and sexually obsessed culture.

These images are both innocent and knowing, chaste and erotic.

As I’ve indicated, these pictured worlds are created by suavely sophisticated formal and painterly tropes. The rectangular picture plane is a receptacle of both deep and narrow space, fluidly juxtaposed with passages of colour and cursive description, which overlay or segue as in a film. There is a telling use of raw, stained or monochrome areas which contrast with the densely brushed or knifed passages of flora and vegetation. Maybe surprisingly, Bacon comes to mind here – albeit with Wright’s gendered opposite of his testosterone-fuelled mises-en-scene –  but especially with his use of centralised compositions, and his designer’s sense of raw texture, cursive line and ambient colour; also Wright is similarly notable in creating chromatic mood envelopes (emotional depth-chambers) for her characters. All these devices serve the greater purpose of fixing those Pan-like bodies in a world of dreams and fugues, thrusting and plunging, reaching, grasping, exulting and sometimes perhaps despairing, now alone, now in communion. This is a world of ecstasy and nightmare conjoined, where overarching crepuscular woods can become bosky outlooks to sunlit epiphany; tangled undergrowth can envelop or disguise, where games are played innocently or otherwise. In these most recent works, Wright invokes the Symbolists –  Redon is not far away in spirit (with Britten as a musical muse).

Finally, I don’t think we can shy away from these paintings’ capacity to disturb us. The works are ultimately what we individually make of them, responding to the clues and hooks that Wright has structured and nuanced within a rectangle of canvas and a skein of paint. Simplicity and ambiguity can coexist, wishfulness and desire are of the same coin. We can imagine what those young figures on an intellectual, experiential and sexual cusp can be thinking and feeling from an associative point of view, whilst viewing them purely aesthetically and objectively (or less purely and pruriently…).

Lisa Wright is a gifted, intelligent and mature artist at the height of her powers, who is honest and courageous enough to tackle subject matter which touches us all profoundly. As she says, when she starts a painting, these issues are never at the front of her mind. Like every serious artist, she has invented and developed uniquely personal themes over her career, and they are the more powerful, haunting – and,yes, disturbing, for her resolute avoidance of consciously analyzing them before the act of painting (which does not preclude post-facto self-interrogation). Her creative drive is the product of genies that lie thankfully unlocated beyond the cerebral cortex, in the instinctive realm of will and urgency. Her works offer us an insidiously enticing magical space, which we enter on our own terms. Their generosity and integrity demand our response in kind.

Bruce Russell is an artist and writer who lives and works in the UK.

© copyright Bruce Russell and Beardsmore Gallery, 2010


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