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

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Rainbows, Fireworks and Blue Sky: 'Turner and the Elements' at Turner Contemporary, Margate

The day the press went to Margate could not have been better chosen. Blue, blue skies and a fiercely low winter sun infused the North Kent seaside town with a sense of spring optimism which overcame the occasional glimpses of boarded up shops and appalling town planning.

I have visited the Turner Contemporary once before - I saw the last show Nothing in the World but Youth  - which although it contained mostly work I have seen before and was massively overhung with a kind of everything but the kitchen sink approach, was still enjoyable. NITWBY featured quite a few works by a youthful Turner and I think that many of the visitors to this new gallery expect to see something by the artist the gallery takes it name from. So taking the touring show Turner and the Elements after its run in Germany and Poland must have been an easy decision for the gallery director.

I am not generally a massive fan of Turner - I find his grand oil paintings too swishy and indistinct. Turner and the Elements focusses mainly on small sketchy watercolours which to my mind are much more interesting and contemporary looking. Quickly made and still fresh these works on paper are free from the detailed additions of people and boats that many of the oils have and thus avoid the twee factor.

JMW Turner, Storm at Sea, circa 1820-30, watercolour on paper, ©Tate, London 2011

The show is divided into elements - earth, air, water and fire - which as the curator explained were a major preoccupation of Turner and his contemporaries. This is apparent in Turner's eye for the spectacular, relishing the natural - sunsets, rainbows, new moons - just as much as the unnatural - smelting works, ship wrecks and fireworks. As is often said of many great historic painters I can imagine that today Turner might have been a film director. One particularly strange OTT painting The Evening of the Deluge features a swirling vortex of birds that pull you into the centre of the painting like Dorothy's twister while a crocodile looks on - Hitchcock's The Birds as well as The Wizard of Oz are the obvious filmic comparisons.

Turner came to Margate as a child and returned often throughout his life staying in a house more or less on the site that the gallery now occupies. This link with the gallery and the town is explored in the show by the addition of some of his Margate paintings. The coming home of these works - and the time this has taken to happen - is quite moving.

JMW Turner, The New Moon or 'I've Lost My Boat, You Shan't Have Your Hoop', exhibited 1840, watercolour on paper, ©Tate, London 2011

Turner said that 'the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe' - referring no doubt to the beautiful sunsets and huge sky-over-sea view that the North Kent coast gives. But on this sunny February day I couldn't help thinking that he was referring to the loveliness of a blue sky at the seaside.

Cathy Lomax

Turner and the Elements
Turner Contemporary, Margate
28 January - 13 May 2012