The Drawing in the Paint: The Painting in the Drawing

William Packer writes:

This is, perhaps as good a time as any to be a painter – a good painter that is to say. But it is never easy. One minute the word is that painting is dead at last: the next it is goodness, how wonderfully it has risen Lazarus-like from the grave. Only the sight of what then actually passes for painting in its latest ‘cutting-edge’ manifestation, fashionably youthful perfunctory or experimental, gives us pause. And all the while, good artists are getting on with the job beneath our noses, barely acknowledged at the wider critical or institutional level even with their work in full and fairly regular public view on the walls of their brave and enterprising galleries – for it is a common error to suppose that too many good artists never get the chance to show.

It is not so much a puzzle – for the general obsession with novelty and the young is all too familiar – as a waste of an opportunity for the wider support of so much real talent. But then again there is a positive aspect to it all, for with freedom to develop and mature untrammelled by fashionable or commercial pressure to stick with what has already proved successful, the artist is able to allow the work to grow truly into itself. And quality, as we must all believe and trust, will out in the end. It also follows that, rather than to the young, it is to artists well into their careers, their commitment and talent alike truly tested by the uncomfortable realities of life after art school, that we may look more reasonably and productively for just such quality. And the paradox is that it is with them, too, that truly radical, adventurous and properly personal work is likely to be found. Certainly there is nothing in the work of Lisa Wright, who over recent years has emerged as one of the most consistently impressive painters of her generation, that is compromised, conventional or safe.

Yet the irony is that she is a painter whose work is centred not just on the human figure, of which through long study she has acquired a profound and instinctive understanding, but on the figure at its most intimately domestic and appealing. In short her apparent subject these many years have been the child, than which, to all expectation, nothing could be more mawkish and sentimental. It is the mark of her seriousness and maturity as an artist that her work is nothing of the sort.

Now 40, she studied first at Maidstone School of Art in the mid 1980s and then, after an interval in the outside world in the early 1990s as a post graduate at the Royal Academy Schools under the keepership of the late Norman Adams. An art school education is, well, an art school education and a commonplace, but in her case it is hard to overestimate the particular importance to her most especially of her time as a student at the Academy Schools, and most of all of the countless hours she spent in the Life Room there – which is one of the most remarkable rooms in London for the peculiar quality of concentration it inevitably instils.

The old disciplines of the Life Room and the study of the model, once central to any painter’s training, disappeared from most of art schools long ago, banished in the name of progress, and even at the Academy they are nowadays much neglected. But in her day they were still at the heart of the matter, and there, under the particular tutelage of such as the late Norman Blamey – a most remarkable, though unduly under-celebrated artist whom she remembers with special gratitude and affection – she acquired the deep, objective yet sympathetic understanding of the human form, in its every nuance and articulation, that informs her work to this day. Indeed it is a particular strength.

She has, of course, looked widely at the work of other painters of the figure over the years, as which painter has not been influenced, in looking sensibly for what is helpful or useful, or merely an example and encouragement? Freud and Soutine have clearly been important to her at various times, as has expressionism in general, abstract and figurative alike. It is Frank Auerbach, however, who has had perhaps the more long-standing an effect on her work, not so much in terms of actual imagery, nor in the constant gestural reworking and searching in the paint, as in the richness of the surface working of the paint, and in the rapid, direct drawing of the image with and in the paint. But to speak of influence is to use too strong a word. Lisa has always remained entirely herself as a painter, and in the ever more reductive simplicity of her statement, near abstract now in its formal preoccupations, she stands quite alone.

Her first son was born even as she left the Academy Schools in 1993 (her second came in 1999), and in turn they became an immediate and rich supply of pictorial ideas and possibilities – at home, learning to walk, in the bath, going to bed. And, as they have grown older, by the natural extension of their interests,  activities and friendships along with her own more general observation,  her material has come by degrees to be drawn from children at large, for the most part unself-consciously relaxing or at play. The local swimming pool was the setting and subject of her last major body of work, and now she has turned her attention to the broader spaces and childhood pleasures of the beach.

She has always drawn, all the time, and does so now with a deceptive facility quite as remarkable for its economy as for its practical descriptive effectiveness. She keeps a sketchbook always with her, takes myriad notes. And by now, with such long practice and experience, her visual memory fully matches her formal understanding, allowing her to catch the moment on the wing, or to reconstruct, indeed reinvent an incident or situation, as the formal development of the work requires. Yet for all its acuity and focus, such particularity is not quite the point. For while the actual identity of her child models, registered sometimes by the merest cast of attitude or gesture, is, as so often in the past, evident enough, it is an incidental bonus born rather of that natural flair than of conscious design. There is nothing intended in the work of the portrait or individual characterisation as such.

There is, of course, much more to her work than just the figure. The Life Room at the Academy, she recalls, was for her from the beginning much more than simply a practical working context for the study of the model. Rather it intrigued her as space in and of itself, to be comprehended and realised, and she made many studies of it at the time. In all her work since then, space, albeit a real and lived-in space, has remained a preoccupation fully equal  and complimentary to the figure itself, the one informing and animating the other, if often only by an implicit presence, off-stage as it were, betrayed only in the casting of a shadow. And she has always treated this space, the garden outside the window, the doorway, the bedroom, the swimming pool, and now the beach and ocean, with the same spare, accurate but infinitely suggestive economy as she treats the figure. With these empty beaches, as with the pool paintings that preceded them, the economy of her statement has become ever more reductive and spare. Indeed, without the figures, here now would be thorough-going abstract paintings of considerable authority and interest in themselves, rich in their facture, dense on the surface, romantic in their abstract expressionist sensibility, but in formal terms simplicity itself – a ground divided by one or two horizontal bars of rich, thick paint of a contrasting tone, moderated perhaps by a discreet vertical or two.

And with this, of course, we come to one of the eternal and central mysteries of painting, one that has occupied painters since painting began. For, no matter whether figuratively intended or entirely abstract, a single mark laid upon a plane surface will generate inevitably the illusionary reality that is pictorial space. Lay another mark against it, and a line across it, and the imaginative possibilities are infinite. It is this larger, ambivalent, contrary purpose of Lisa Wright’s work, together with its ambition, that makes it so interesting as painting, and so impressive. On the one hand there is the content, the figure complete with all its implicit narrative potential, highly charged with symbolic possibilities and ambiguities: on the other is painting as painting in its abstract formal structures and physical practice, a thing to be achieved, a job to be done. Here as ever is the age-old creative tension, the push-and-pull between form and content, and the balance to be struck between them, without which there can be no art.

Such are the formal games and tests that Lisa sets herself. A densely painted horizontal band is laid across the lighter ground of the canvas – yellow, perhaps a sharpish green, a darker green, a rich sienna, even a black. And at once we have sea and sand and sky – for the mere laying of an horizontal across the surface of the canvas is inevitably to set up a landscape. Then to set a figure into any such space, however spare that space may be, is at once to set a scale and a distance, and a receding plane. Add children, and we have, at least at the most superficial level, an actual and familiar world.

But these images of children are as they are because that is how they were, un-self-consciously playing or otherwise occupied, in this case on the beach, as they were seen to be useful and usable within the larger scheme and necessities of the work. The particular is subsumed within that work to serve a pictorial purpose that is not so much different as altogether broader and more general. And it is Lisa’s disciplined, long-ingrained objectivity and the disinterested, albeit affectionate scrutiny that comes with it, that puts that certain and necessary emotional distance between her and her material.

Yet the personal cannot altogether be denied. And with the apparently dispassionate nature of her approach, and all the abstract qualities and knowing formal sophistication of the work, there comes too, at a deeper level, the sense of serious and even passionate engagement, that is the stronger and more disquieting, perhaps, for being unspoken, unacknowledged. For artists, if they are real artists, will always bring to their work more than they ever imagine, do with it more than they ever knew, say more than they ever thought. And by her very formal preoccupation and emotional detachment, Lisa Wright speaks volumes of eternal anxieties that she herself could scarcely admit to, let alone articulate. These are deep waters, and this is properly ambitious work, and very brave. For the happy, dependant infant has grown into the thoughtful child who now stands alone beside the green-black sea. Here is the child as Child, a monumental, symbolic presence at the very edge of an elemental world. And his mother can only sit and watch.

William Packer is a writer and Art Critic. He was principal art critic for the Financial Times until 2004.

© copyright William Packer and Beardsmore Gallery, 2005


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