RACHEL COAD - 'Restoration'

Gallerysmith: 31st August – 7th October 2017

Installation view

The show comprises nine large canvases all devoted to a single figure looking and gesturing out of picture, mostly in profile, in all but one picture, to the left. The figure is rendered in a dark brown monochrome against a flat white ground, while lighting to figures is even or flat, offering no clues to an interior or exterior setting. To all intents and purposes the figures are isolated in a pictorial vacuum. Figures are larger than life-scale, so that one inspects them at close range as it were, quickly notes an economy in execution and scrutinises pose or body language as if specimens in some psychological study.  

Installation view

The show is titled Restoration and the artist’s catalogue note explains that the figures are summations of many details of a subject (compared with, say, a video or sequence of photographs) that ‘restore’ the subject’s true or hidden nature through considered painting. It is a familiar defence of painting, as a more complex and flexible means of depiction (leaving aside digital options). But the striking austerity Coad brings to the project also suggests other meanings. To combine various elements hardly implies a monochrome palette obviously, nor the erasure of a context or setting. While timing and timeliness are notoriously fickle in capturing a reliable likeness, the problem extends to reception for a portrait, indeed to personality and perception in general. In other words it is not something that painting can hope to remedy in any case. The undeniable impact of the paintings, I think rests elsewhere and touches on some fascinating, if frustrating issues for contemporary figurative painting. Although the works look straightforward enough, as usual, these things take some time to tune into.

The artist is based in West Australia and best known for her portraiture for which she has been a finalist in prizes such as the Doug Moran Prize and The Black Swan Prize as well as broader prizes such as Metro Five and Albany Prize. While availing herself of photographic sources, these are supplemented where possible by traditional observational drawing and a close acquaintance with the sitter. Accompanying her formal portraiture has been an interest in the figure in vigorous action and confrontation, the two streams inevitably meeting at points, such as her 2014 show, Juncture.

6 Second Mark (2014) 140 X 140 cm oil on canvas

There, high-speed photography by the artist often disclosed surprising expressions to a person in conversation and the artist then tried to synthesise these qualities through painting. Painting’s role as a modifier of photographic imagery has been a central plank of contemporary painting for some time, pursued by artists as diverse as Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas amongst others. Usually, an overlooked genre of press or publication imagery is discerned (possibly historical, promotional or topical) and the latitude allowed painterly qualities, where successful, to a large extent dictates which print qualities are given prominence, how the source image is characterised. For Coad this involves a cautious concession to the painterly so that a painting of a compelling instant such as 6 Second Mark (2014) looks anything but instantaneous. The painting does not so much freeze a frame as labour its hesitation, in delineation and modelling, linger in doubt, with an almost Cezanne-like diffidence. The artist is tantalised by an identity for the subject, yet held in abeyance. We encounter the private worlds of the informal or family snaps or video, Skype exchanges perhaps and a roving attachment on the part of the artist.

This subtle ambivalence in Coad’s treatment marks a greater maturity and confidence to the work. The current show carries this forward in bolder, unexpected ways, not least in isolating the figures against stark white backgrounds. Previous work had tended to favour a more traditional darkness in eliminating a setting, but the light and white approach brings with it a change of mood, as noted, a somewhat clinical or detached ambience, where one is tempted to treat the gestures as psychological demonstrations. The artist notes that conversations involve listening and looking when not speaking but this to and fro does not account for the conspicuously oblique or sideways view of subjects. Significantly, the subject does not address the artist or viewer, nor anyone remotely on the same eyeline. The paintings frame only one person involved in the conversation, so that even if the conversation involved more than two participants, artist and viewer deliberately concentrate on just one of them, uncoupling any sense of back and forth or participation. At their most basic, the paintings are about not participating in a conversation plainly underway, about looking askance or at cross-purposes to the flow of events. 

Megan 2017 150 X 213 cm oil on canvas 

The paintings concentrate on not a situation or setting, but an ardour of involvement that flows from face to torso and limbs, a kind of commitment that is compelling yet strangely directed elsewhere. Like the vacillating faces to Juncture, Restoration deals in an involvement kept at arm’s length, the object of contemplation rather than response. The generous spacing around figures highlights this essentially internal dynamic; it draws on nothing else. The monochrome palette compresses or unifies features to a figure, so that dress, grooming, gesture and expression all share a sweeping moment, are finally all of the same stuff. And if the figures seem dim or dark for it, it surely hints at a person taken as a whole; unfathomable motives, unknowable impulses

Mumtaz II (2017) 175 X 175 cm oil on canvas

In some pictures lower portions of the figure are granted a more blurred handling, as in Mumtaz II (2017). This example is also the exception, where the figure looks to the right of picture frame. Yet the blurring hardly indicates motion, by artist or figure, nor perhaps (improbably) an immersion in water, since the figure’s arm remains more sharply defined. It is not a photographic quality at all of course, but rather painterly interpretation now given literally more latitude or leeway, to pass with some frisson between figure and ground. That this should occur only to the torso is surely telling and confirms the sense of body in counterpoint to face and expression. We broach a kind of mind/body duality, whereby facial concentration seemingly leaves the body in a metaphorical dissolution. It is scarcely a novel conception perhaps; however its application to discussion among friends, and the stylistic parameters allowed, most assuredly is unfamiliar and quietly effective.

Waldemar (2017) 175 X 175 cm oil on canvas

Interestingly, the most extreme examples of this contrast occur with male subjects. In Waldemar (2017) for example, the lower portion of the figure almost disappears into a cloud, giving the surrounding ground surprisingly far more presence. Here, the figure may negotiate smoke or at least a dry-ice machine, giving the conversation an amusingly melodramatic quality. But again, one is struck by the fixity and delineation of the head, its darkness against the lightly glimpsed gesture to hands and arms. If listening, perhaps the conviction of his words simply drowns out accompanying gestures. 

Mark (2017) 185 X 185 cm oil on canvas

In Mark (2017) perhaps the least animated work in the show; one has the unmistakeable impression of hesitation or thought on the part of the subject and in scale and composition an undeniable scrutiny. But one but cannot help suspecting that, even for the monochrome treatment, a photograph would have conveyed this just as well. Once one embarks upon more painterly or formal means, inevitably such questions arise and it is a tribute to the artist’s rigour that appeals to pictorial standards soon follow, leave one wondering for instance whether traditional proportion and modelling need be preserved in such a searching examination? The work thus engages with fundamental issues for painting, simply through pursuing more personal and particular issues. It would be premature to claim too much for the work, but clearly it carves out distinctive territory. We do not strictly detect a print genre, although the works remind one of Vox Pop interviews somewhat, but the oblique angle to eyelines ensures that the focus is now upon a more psychological and personal project.

Adri (2017) 175 X 175 cm oil on canvas

There is one further aspect worth noting. The subjects are all drawn from the artist’s circle of peers, so that for instance, older or much younger figures play no part in the conversations. This narrows the focus of the conversations  considerably. The conversation then becomes about that side of life, the shared issues and alliances. If one then allows that the paintings look askance in such meetings, in effect tune out the dialogue as a condition of contemplation or artistic vision, one glimpses a more intriguing and private relationship. The works become about something far more guarded and non-committal. They do not so much criticise the figures’ ready involvement or sincerity but rather harbour quite a different, much less welcome one. In the end the artist places art first and what follows ultimately in a state of flux. 

Mumtaz (2017) 160 X 220 cm oil on canvas

All images courtesy of the artist and Gallerysmith. My gratitude to both for assistance in preparing this review.



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