Lesley Vance prefers breathing space for her work. The 11 paintings in her solo exhibition at Herald St (all Untitled, 2018) are sparely hung across both of the gallery’s venues. Vance’s instinct is just: these paintings have a tight, interiorized logic that would be too easy to skim past were they crowded together. It takes time and attention for them to start revealing their oddness.
Each work in this series carries its own restrained palette, often of three colours – deep cobalt, scarlet and ash; lemon, pewter and ultramarine; ochre, black and white – with the paint engaged in two distinct processes. A loose, gestural undercoat, scraped and wiped back until the colours are smushed and streaky, appears in the finished compositions as areas of dynamic movement worming between more solidly painted shapes and structures. These, at first, read as hard-edge flat but are, instead, subtly descriptive of three-dimensional forms. Like still life or even landscape paintings conducted on an alien plane, the works offer physical shapes responding to a light source.
These suggestions of land- or dreamscapes are in keeping with Vance’s earlier concerns. The fleshy, vegetal romanticism of her works from the early 2000s took the overheated bucolic colours of the pre-Raphaelites into the humid territory of adult fairytale: body parts and buds mingled among the drippy paint. Her ‘Finer Days’ show at David Kordansky Gallery in 2007 was of feathery, nocturnal still-life painting – urchin shells and anemones, dying poppies, a faun’s horn – isolated in the darkness (at the time, the artist cited Juan Sánchez Cotán and Francisco de Zurbarán as influences). Their crepuscular mood and suggestion of subject was carried over into Vance’s subsequent abstractions, among them a gothy-toned untitled painting shown in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.
Perhaps it is the heat blistering London during the show, but Vance’s latest series feels distinctly summery. In place of the doomy colouration of a 17th-century vanitas, these works share tonal kinship with René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico – Vance’s paintbrush has dipped into their clear blue skies, apple greens, salary-man monochromes, marble and sandstone. From De Chirico’s sunset porticos, blank heads and strong, diagonal shadows, Vance has drawn arcs and loops, smooth ovoid forms and the suggestion of a single, otherworldly light source.
Compositionally, they bust spatial logic: there are small and very precisely painted points of overlap between planes within each picture that create M.C. Escher-like illusion. In the most exciting pieces, Vance plays with translucence as if faithfully portraying sheets of milky or coloured acrylic. The effect, in what I have come to think of as her ‘clean’ works, is of the artist creating, first, a collaged relief from painted paper and then recording it in oils. I’ve not seen Vance work in collage or, indeed, sculpture. These works certainly suggest a flirtation with both – I wonder what would happen if she leapt off the canvas into three dimensions? Is she ever tempted? Certainly she thinks sculpturally. There are also ‘dirty’ works, in which those smeared, underlying gestural portions dominate. In the most striking, ribbons of solid black and clear ochre occupy a whitish ground: between them boil residual streaks of black paint, like toxic fumes from a factory chimney in an environmental fable.
While each has reached it from a different trajectory, the territory Vance is exploring – gesture, dirt and kinesis providing a seamy underlayer to clean, frictionless abstract form – is one also visited by Tomma Abts in a concurrent show at London’s Serpentine Gallery. The works, of course, are very different: Abts’s tight, geometrical abstractions show flashes of a sprayed and spattered surface beneath the crisply painted oil. The suggestion in both series of chaos beneath the control – dirt underlying the clean surface, softness beyond the hard edge – seems unpleasantly timely.
Lesley Vance's solo exhibition at Herald St, London was on view from 2 June until 8 July 2018.
Main image: Lesley Vance, Untitled, 2018, oil on linen, 79 × 61 × 3 cm. Courtesy: Herald St, London; photograph: Fredrick Nilsen