What do pictures want? Nothing, goes one answer; attention, goes another; and in between, from being ignored to being loved, is a reflection of every human hope. ‘Slow Painting’, a group show organized by Hayward Gallery Touring (and currently at Leeds Art Gallery), is concerned with how we look at pictures, and for how long; how they might represent ‘slowness’, or be seen to encourage it. In this, the show is as much about people as paint.
Intrigued by spectatorship, the curator Martin Herbert pretends for no greater coherence than humans possess themselves. He’s designed the show with latitude, choosing 19 contemporary painters and 59 of their works. Varda Caivano’s fields of broiling colour are unlike Carol Rhodes’s aerial landscapes, and it requires effort to have eyes for both – but all attention is an act of devotion, and part of the pleasure of this show is in not demanding a quick return.
There is a common thread: to map out how ‘slowness’ might manifest through paint. These pictures defer, obstruct, evade. Some toy with scenes we recognize – by glimpses, but well enough. For instance, in Lubaina Himid’s Le Rodeur: The Exchange (2016), named for the 19th-century slave ship, a group of black figures gathers in a spare, well-lit room. Outside a bright pink window is a bleak, rolling sea. The tableau seems amortized, eerily disciplined; the violence and filth of empire is cited and smothered at once. The link between the painted and the dead – a link, you realize, each viewer must discern afresh – is kept unspoken, made oblique.
Some paintings don’t conjure what you remember; instead, they offer rich and strange tableaux. All four of Gareth Cadwallader’s works are scenes of exquisite distraction. A man cups an egg that might roll off a table; another trails a finger in a puddle of spilt milk. Behind them, shades of purple weave and wind and glow. The men’s faces are gently averted; your attention follows theirs. Distraction can end in anxiety: what time is it? what have I missed? But to keep attending to someone whose own attention is elsewhere is a form of loyalty: in this, Cadwallader’s work suggests, patient viewing may be close to love.
Other paintings return your gaze. Benjamin Senior’s work has the ambience of the personal paradise, suspiciously flat and sleek. Witness the sibling colours of Shade (2019): as a girl lies open-eyed on the beach, her blue glasses pick up the azure of the sky, and the pinwheels in the sand – and, quietly, the darker shorts of a man who’s lying nearby. You look, and think, and look. Are these blues constructing a mood, or even a plot? Or is their interaction superficial, and the fantasy all yours?
‘The ability to see painting,’ Herbert writes in the catalogue essay, ‘is not innate. It grows, and it grows only in looking.’ ‘Slow Painting’ envisages viewing as a practice of complication, one that squares up to life on screen with the throttle down. It’s a difficult exhibition; productively so, for those prepared to dwell. In Leeds, the layout was split: in one room, which has one door, the visitors seemed able to linger; in the other, which felt like a corridor, the bustle put paid to the calm. One woman came sweeping through, capturing each painting on her phone. Her speed began to seem poignant: a happy sinner, unknowingly damned. The labour of looking – as with any devotion – is so easily given up.
‘Slow Painting’ continues at Leeds Art Gallery, UK, until 12 January 2020.
First published in Issue 209