Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Unbearable Lightness: 'Time and Memory: Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand at Parasol Unit, London N1'

By the Window, 2003–2004, ink-wash on paper, 151 x 198 cm, The Michael Storåkers Collection
photograph Björn Larsson
Straightforward photorealist paintings can be easily consumed and dismissed, but Gunnel Wåhlstrand’s large-scale, black-ink washes on paper are hauntingly captivating. Some of the melancholic figures look stiff and slightly awkward, perhaps due to her precise, skillful style, but the gentle washes suggest a loving hand has resurrected these papery ghosts of the past. It is not surprising then, that the images document a personal history and are taken from the artist’s family photographs of pristine interiors, manicured gardens and relatives she never met.

It is disappointing that Wåhlstrand’s White Peacocks, 2007/9 is not part of this exhibition as it perfectly exemplifies the radiant results of her restrictive technique. There is a remarkable white peacock at Leeds Castle in Kent that stands out and glows next to it’s gaudy, colourful counterparts, and a similar, luminous quality shines through Wåhlstrand’s washes. Her punishing process is unfathomably meticulous. Edges are left slightly ragged, revealing the careful build-up of layers, and the permanence of ink means there must be no going back once a mark is made.

Less interesting are the suggested similarities between the paintings’ time-consuming technique and the act of developing photographs. Investigations into the relationship between painting and photography have been done to death and surely put to bed by Richter’s recent retrospective at Tate Modern.

Memory, the questioning of images and a forensic interrogation of photographic sources does, however, link the two painters in this exhibition. Downstairs, Cecilia Edefalk’s black and white paintings of Laurel and Hardy are comedic, but also poignant, nostalgic and underscore the crossover. Edefalk’s paintings repeat content, pointing to a conceptual approach with an emphasis on process. Initially copied from photographs, her paintings multiply, one leading to another. Surprisingly, some paintings in the show are over 20 years old and appeared in Vitamin P almost 10 years ago. It is well documented that Edefalk has made few images and that painting, for her, is a particularly slow and deliberate process.

At The Moment Untitled, 1998, oil on canvas, 140cm diameter
Sculptures of Birch trees held up by clumsy armatures seem cliché coming from a Swedish artist, but lend themselves to the surrounding series of paintings that repeatedly attempt to capture a white statue, framed by foliage and illuminated in the spooky darkness. This section works particularly well, but the overall collection of Edefalk’s works feels disjointed and at odds with her process where things are visibly linked through repetition.

Double White Venus with Mask, 2008, tempera on linen, 60x40cm
private collection, photography Carl Henrik Tillberg, © Cecilia Edefalk
Painting photographs to investigate personal history, processes, memory or the uniqueness of the painted image may not be innovative, cutting edge or challenging any more, but nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking and sensitive exhibition from an intriguing, well-matched pair.

Alli Sharma

Time and Memory: Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand
Parasol Unit, London N1 until 12 Feb 2012

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