The finishing touch

Gillian Carnegie

'There is a crisis with regard to Representation. They are looking for Meaning as if it was a thing. As if it was a girl, required to take her panties off as if she would want to do so, as soon as the true interpreter comes along. As if there was something to take off.'
Marlene Dumas, The Artwork as Misunderstanding, 1991.

Most painters depend on light - those plein air artists couldn't have struck a pose for Modernism without it - but Gillian Carnegie seems to crave darkness. Her themes and subjects are simple enough: genre painting, landscapes, nudes, still lifes; her style is old-fashioned, her handling of paint even conservative. However, her preoccupation with detailing an arrested narrative of desire makes her work at once both sublimely ancient and fiercely contemporary. Carnegie's paintings reek of sexual menace and voyeuristic obsession; they act as ciphers of darkness, of moments when transgression occurs - occasions when you can lose yourself in some other matter.

But then there's always the brisk clarity of morning. I first saw Carnegie's work in the artificial light of the ICA, London, in a group show of contemporary drawing. Surrounded by a peer group of doodling youths transfixed by the legacy of Sol LeWitt, Carnegie blinded them very elegantly with her arse. Untitled (1998) depicts a closely cropped image of the artist's upper thighs, bottom and lower back. Taken from a photograph and rendered in graphite on paper, the style is clinically accomplished. Although pressed close up, in your face (the pert boyish buttocks, the cocky contrapposto movement), the pose itself is not so problematic. It is the spread legs and the revelation of the prominent fluff of the artist's pudendum that shatters the distance required for aesthetic contemplation. This graphic description of the female form engages with a more challenging pornographic language, yet it is the forced acknowledgement of the artist's personality that makes Untitled such an unsettling image. The restrained academic style seduces you into an engagement with the subject and the viewer is thus embroiled in an erotic encounter with the artist. Before you can accuse the artist of, quite literally, selling her arse she pre-empts the possibility, controlling the viewer's position and bringing the erotics of commodity fetishism to the fore. This is a sophisticated gesture, both an acknowledgement and a testing of the limits of the private in a very public sphere. Carnegie's strident exhibitionism recognizes the obscure shamefulness of your voracious desire to look; a disquieting yet not unpleasurable experience.

Untitled serves as a statement of intent for Carnegie's continuing series of 'bum' paintings. (I would prefer to use the word 'arse', though, as it has a harder edge, better suiting Carnegie's project.) The fact that it's difficult to label these pictures reflects the complexity of what they depict - what exactly are you looking at? All the paintings pursue the same theme: a cropped rendition of Carnegie's bottom painted from a photograph, but their composition, treatment and effect vary: from the suggestion of a torrid narrative to a purely formal exercise in painting; from the crispness of a Photorealist style to the more recent fleshy abstraction in which the outline of the figure blends with an indistinct background. In one painting Carnegie is depicted lying prone on a couch. You can see the edge of a blue sweatshirt and a green blanket; the lighting suggests a dingy domestic set-up. In another picture a crouching figure is fully lit and set against a flat grey ground. Except for a couple of images in which the figure is wearing white pants - or half-wearing them, as they're just about to slip off - the paintings draw your eye to the dark cleft of her buttocks. This consistently available motif proves the perfect vehicle for Carnegie to explore the manipulation of paint and the psychological complexities of her subject matter.

The landscapes and still lifes lack the obvious erotic implications of the 'bum' paintings, but they are no less complex and perhaps articulate more clearly the artist's obsession with exploring the construction of potent images from the base materiality of paint. Carnegie's most recent paintings signal a self-conscious move away from a reliance on the photograph. Honer (2000-1) is a virtually unintelligible landscape, the paint so black and thickly three-dimensional that the finished piece is, perversely, almost impossible to photograph: the glistening marks simply reflect the light. Fleurs de Huile (2001) is the most successful of a series of recent still lifes depicting a bunch of decaying flowers informally arranged in a cut-down Volvic bottle. What happens here is very similar to the 'bum' paintings' insistence on the psychological implications of light and dark, surface and depth, submission and dominance. The flowers in Fleurs de Huile are subject to the same intense scrutiny as any of the nudes - the viewer is cast in the same complicit role as a spectator exploring the subdued yet shifting theatrics of the artist's gaze - but in this instance the allegory is clearly articulated through the handling of the paint. The fragile description of the washed-out edges of the flowers implodes to become a built-up mass of paint; just as your eye recognizes the description of 'flowers' you are faced with the mess of 'matter', the oscillating tension between subject matter and material invigorating the faded grandeur of painting's lowest genre.

What does it mean to be a painter these days? How do you find a subject and approach the canvas, let alone begin to manipulate the paint? Carnegie's paintings operate successfully as meditations on the nature of pictorial realism - they are concerned with the problems intrinsic to painting itself and, as such, they operate as allegories of their own production. For all its visceral nature, Carnegie's use of paint is remarkably conceptual. Her paintings display all the sulky insouciance of a teetotal teenager entering a room full of intoxicated adults, dancing badly. But, above all, Carnegie's work possesses the arrogance of a girl; one who knows how to get you off, when to put out and when not.

Polly Staple is a director at Chisenhale Gallery, London.

Issue 64

First published in Issue 64

Jan - Feb 2002

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