Night Paintings

Dr Virginia Button writes:

In her paintings Lisa Wright succeeds in somehow compressing an intensity of feeling into what might be perceived as a real moment. Fusing acute observation with memory, her images are at once objectively rendered yet emotionally charged. In her new series of paintings depicting children in night-time settings, her beautifully realised figures are locked into expansive grounds of almost abstract monochromatic colour. The formal structure of these backgrounds serves only to fix our attention to the often solitary figures, emphasising the contradiction of their nascent independence, and their potential vulnerability. More so than in her previous work, these lonely figures seems to represent not just the real, familiar child, but something more remote and timeless.

In the mid-1990s, paintings of babies and children might have been considered sentimental, even saccharine, but it is a measure of Wright’s determination that she took on this difficult subject and has produced a rigorous, disquieting body of work. Her early pictures of infants and toddlers were made using a tentative, fluid ‘Gustonesque’ outline. A growing conviction of her identity as a figurative painter is perhaps reflected in her approach to depicting the figure, which though neither literal has evolved into something more assertive and concrete. Now when Wright paints the human form it is always using wet paint on wet paint, which enables her to draw with the paint in an almost sculptural way, carving out a three-dimensional form, which contrasts quite dramatically with the space around it.

The disciplined process of drawing is crucial to Wright’s practice as a painter. She has commented: ‘The closer my painting is to drawing, the more resolved it tends to be for me’. Attending the Royal Academy Schools in the early 1990s she spent hours in the life room, drawing both the model and the architectural spaces. Here, under the guidance of such teachers as the figurative painter Norman Blamey, she was encouraged, through drawing, to slow down the process of looking at her subject, not simply to develop mimetic skills, but also a sense of emotional engagement.

This passionate commitment to drawing aligns her work with an older generation British figurative painters, notably Frank Auerbach. In relation to Auerbach’s work Leon Kossof has observed: ‘Drawing is not a mysterious activity. Drawing is making an image which expresses commitment and involvement… rejecting ideas which are possible to preconceive… destroying images that lie, discarding images that are dead.’ For Wright, continuous drawing and sketching has had the effect of ‘etching a different kind of memory’. Years after making a sketch of a particular subject, or certain pose, it might resurface in her painting. But drawing can also function as a way of releasing or perhaps containing suppressed emotion. Kossoff describes Auerbach’s images as ‘drawn from unknown areas of the self’. Similarly, although Wright is reluctant to dwell on the possible meanings of her work, she acknowledges that it taps into feelings so deep and powerful for her, that they cannot be otherwise articulated.

Clearly, on one level, the Night Paintings have evolved out of Wright’s developing formal concerns, allowing her to play with the tension between figuration and abstraction, form and content. Through these paintings she has pursued an ongoing process of reduction, eliminating superfluous detail. The inclusion of a single motif, such as a tree trunk or clump of reeds, provides the viewer with a sense of place, a possible narrative. But like the splashes of water in her pool paintings, these motifs also indulge a love of painterly gesture, allowing the artist the freedom to manipulate the paint in different ways on the surface. She has said: ‘I need that sort of contrast. I need areas where I am almost sculpting a figure and other areas where I am much more abandoned and free with the mark-making’.

She often talks of ‘right structure’ and has a highly developed sense of what she needs to make a picture feel right in pictorial terms, such as the format and scale of the canvas, or position of the figure in relation to ground. She is sensitive to the dramatic effects of vantage point on the viewer, enjoying for example, Veronese’s use of oblique perspective for ceiling decorations, which allowed him to avoid distortion of his figures, while giving the viewer a glorious sense of being overwhelmed by the image. But the use of strong tonal contrasts to create pictorial structure, found in Veronese’s work and that of other masters such as Vermeer, has probably been more significant for her work. The subject of Night Paintings has enabled her to fully exploit a long-held interest in the dramatic contrast of light and dark as a picture-making tool.

Wright produced a few night pictures in London during the 1990s, but Cornwall has had a profound impact on the development of this new series of paintings. Situated on a high plateau, her home in Crelly is subjected to particular climatic effects such as dense localised mist. While producing the Night Paintings she was taking regular, early morning walks to clear her head and to connect with the landscape. She has said: ‘I am not a landscape painter, but my surroundings have always been so important in terms of the way the paintings develop… In the mornings we sometimes have a white-out – there is so much low cloud that you can’t see anything… I can imagine making paintings of really dark figures against a white ground’. Around her home the horizon line is high, the sun and moon seem low in the sky. Driving at night has been a revelation: ‘Driving around these tiny narrow lanes the headlights create extraordinary contrasts. It’s a magical world. Because we are located so high up we also get very dramatic moonlight’.

Although Wright’s work is rooted in traditions of painting, photography in particular has helped her to translate the heightened contrasts she perceives in nature into the language of paint. Encouraged by contemporary photographers, she has staged her own night photos, using flashlights to illuminate trees and bushes. Something pf the luminosity of night photography has found it’s way into her paintings. For example, the seated figure in Moon Glow emanates an eerie light, which in Luminous Waters a girl wades waist high, her skin radiating the phosphorescent green light reflected from of the water around her. Though drawn from nature, such lighting effects give the images an other-worldly, magical aura.

There is also an affinity between her imagery and contemporary photography of the human subject. For instance, in her series of Beach Portraits (1992-96) Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra presents children and young people as free-standing figures, set against the simple backdrop of sea and shore, their bodies given a sculptural presence by a combination of natural and artificial light. While both Dijkstra and Wright have produced images of children who seem to exude a calm self-containment, in the latter’s paintings it is difficult not to feel a hidden malevolent or threatening presence. Her introspective, self-contained children seem in constant danger of being enveloped by elemental forces.

On leaving the Royal Academy Schools in 1993, Wright’s first child Max was born, followed by his brother Theo in 1999. Spending days with her children, she began to sketch them in all their activities. Quite naturally, these drawings led to larger, more substantial work. Observed from life, her depictions of chubby babies echo the playful cherubs who inhabit old master paintings, their pink skin reminiscent of Veronese’s work or Tiepolo’s deliciously peachy infants. Yet, while clearly delighting in the intimate pleasures of motherhood and the special bond between mother and infant, even early paintings such as Holding On and Looking Forward seem to hint at the complexities of parental love: from the minute a baby is born it begins to grow away from its parents.

Her sensitive handling of this theme echoes the work of earlier painters such as Gainsborough, whose animated portrait of his daughters Margaret and Mary chasing a butterfly articulates both parental pleasure and unease. In this work he depicts a particular moment in which the cherished potential for life is captured at the same time as its fragility, symbolised by the butterfly which flutters out of reach.

The increasing interaction of her children with the outside world is registered in Wright’s work – alongside the familiar forms of Max and Theo, their friends have entered her visual language. Similarly, as her sons have grown, so public rather than domestic space has provided the settings for their activities, whether swimming at the local pool or playing on the beach. Yet, while the artist’s series of pool and beach paintings seem to explore relationships between children, in the Night Paintings a sense of impending and inevitable separation between parent and child during adolescence is more starkly evoked.

For the most part, the Night Paintings present single figures, boys and girls, naked against an emptied out, black background, like a stage with the barest of props. While the beach paintings are divided into bands of horizontal colour, these new pictures are often divided by a strong vertical line in the form of a tree, which strikes through the canvas like a bolt of lightning.

Typically in these works, the artist depicts children in relaxed, natural poses – standing, kneeling, sitting, but rarely engaged in energetic movement. Placed in the middle of the canvas, some of the standing figures, their arms by their sides, acquire a monumental presence that contradicts their small frames. In Night Blossom Girl, the figure’s shadow even takes on the shape of a pedestal. With their faces often down-turned or in shadow, these children are seemingly self-absorbed. Occasionally, they glance over a shoulder as if to acknowledge the viewer’s presence as someone who might have stumbled into their world. Yet they refuse to be stirred from their reverie. Despite their naturalness and the accurately observed detail of their anatomy, these are sphinx-like, supernal creatures. As Francine Prose has observed: ‘The mystery of childhood is as obsessively fascinating as the mystery of time… Unlike the more slowly evolving adult, the child makes us aware of how much is changing, second by second. In the child, we contemplate time’s mystery with a certain narcissism, seeking tantalising hints of who we were in the distant past and who we will be in the future. We want to ask children what used to be asked of the oracles’.

Lisa Wright’s paintings evoke the child’s perception of endless time, when summers stretched into eternity. Through her drawing, she slows down the process of looking, yet her drawing cannot arrest the steady transformation of child into adult, nor dull a mother’s fear of the unknown.


Dr Virginia Button is a writer and Director of The Falmouth School Art . Button was senior Tate Gallery curator at Tate Modern 1991-2001 and curated the Turner Prize from 1993-1998. Her published books on artists include: Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson and most recently Lucien Freud.

© copyright Virginia Button and Lemon Street Gallery, 2006


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