The French/German, London-based artist Caroline Achaintre has been exploring the peculiar psychology of the mask for more than a decade. This has led her to some unusual places – from the costumes and characters of the European carnival and commedia dell’arte to catwalk fashion, S&M dens and schlocky sci-fi and horror films. Her work is heavily indebted to the German expressionists’ appropriation of primitive forms and the playful permissiveness of pop. Her first major survey, this exhibition brings together 63 works, including hand-tufted wool wall hangings, ceramic sculptures, prints and watercolours.
Drawing is where Achaintre’s practice began and the 20 delicate, yet remarkably intense, watercolours here highlight her interest in the uncanny. These small pictures feature ambiguous figure-forms, as in Inside Your Head (2005): a candy-coloured Rorschach inkblot from which emerge the crude features of a devilish clown face with black holes for eyes. A later work, MeYou&theOtherTwo (2012), is an example of the artist’s use of wax alongside watercolour to layer one figure on top of another – a doubling that speaks to her ongoing interest in the co-existence of dual or multiple personalities.
Achaintre began working with wool in the early 2000s, as a way of translating the speed and spontaneity of her mark-making to a larger scale while retaining its vibrancy and intensity. Hand-tufting might sound like a demure pastime but, in fact, involves a high-powered air-pressured gun, with which the artist fires great shaggy loops of thread through a stretched canvas – a process she describes as ‘painting with wool’. A highlight from the dozen works collected here – each occupying their own wall and varying in size from two- to four-metres-tall – is Moustache-Eagle (2008). There is a dynamic verticality to this image of a majestic bird of paradise opening its wings to reveal a drooping Frank Zappa moustache. This hybrid is bird, man and mask all at once, with two eyeholes suggesting a mind behind the feathers and fur.
The promiscuity of Achaintre’s approach, from her sources to her techniques and her playfulness, lends her work its vitality. Though she began working with ceramics a little over five years ago, the 25 wall- and plinth-based pieces demonstrate her complete embrace of the immediacy and malleability of the medium. As with her instinctive application of the wool gun, Achaintre discovered that by quickly folding, gathering and puncturing sheets of paper clay it was possible to capture an expression – like the small hole in M.Ennuie (2016), a barely opened eye or lips pursed in a listless sigh – that conjures a character. And, while the uncanny animism of the wool works is accentuated by their furry finish, it is also heightened by their contrast with the lustrous ceramic glazes, which masquerade as flesh – of snakes and crocodiles as well as other leathery glosses.
A distinctively unseductive new textile work, Lord Lard (2016), is a corpulent man-mountain. Despite being little more than a large triangle with eye holes, he projects a real emotional charge. Like a cross between Jabba the Hut and a witchdoctor, he thrums with potency as his low hanging tufts drip menacingly off the wall and onto the gallery floor.
Grimacing, gaping and pouting, Achaintre’s creations are bursting with personality. The theatrical, alien world her characters occupy maintains its intensity through the dynamic relationship between their abstract and figurative qualities, both mask and man, never quite resolving into one thing or the other, but existing as their own idiosyncratic selves.