WASHING UP: Helene Appel at P420, Bologna
24 September – 5 November 2016
The immaculately presented white walls of P420, invigorating the two generous, bright and voluminous spaces that might intimidate visitors and overpower any work installed in this arena, suitably acted to focus the gaze on Helene Appel’s recent work. Containing 13 paintings that conjoined somewhat disparate subject matters: shards of glass, a fishing net, pasta, sandy seashores, washing up water and images of raw meat, compelled close viewing of both image and surface qualities. In fact, such is the fiction and developing ubiquity of the digital screen, that, if you had first seen the images for Washing Up on the P420 website, you may have expected a form of photorealism. Fortunately, this was not so, for if a painted image eschews completely any of its painterly qualities, it may as well be something else entirely. In Appel’s images it is clearly paint media that we are observing. This matter-of-factness is emphasised by the simplicity of application, which often verges on minimal deliberation with the brush.
A sophisticated economy of practice is manifested in ‘Sink (2)’ (2016), where the outer framing device of the stainless steel form is almost crudely rendered – but the visual information is just enough to represent the domestic receptacle that holds the somewhat unpleasant state of the water that threatens to overflow beyond the sides of the canvas. The post-washing up debris that floats beneath the surface barely approaches the grandeur of, say, a Dutch still-life of the seventeenth century, and might prove disconcerting. But, like the Dutch genre painters’ predilection for representing everyday life, Appel’s selection of un-elevated imagery offers the viewer some threads of spaghetti, a little green vegetable, and a piece of salmon (perhaps) that might otherwise still be lodged between the diner’s teeth.
Undoubtedly, there is a certain degree of quiet discomfort in some of these images, including ‘Shards (3)’ (2016), which instinctively generates a sense of the trompe l’oeil that so often renders images vacuous, faux and trite. Intriguingly, ‘Shards’, as just one example, avoids the pitfalls of mere imitation, as the simple imagery acts as a trigger for interpretation, despite an initial assumption that the subject matter contains little of substance. ‘Shards’ not only reveals Appel’s fine painting skills, but also invites the viewer to pick up the pieces with their eyes as a haptic rather than reflective response. And also, despite depicting glass, the visual self is not reflected in these fragments, as by visual implication the inert subject matter has its own sense of being. There is an implication of the before and after of an event (the breaking of the glass) and so time is implied in an instant.
Illusionistic realism aside, a relationship between the hand made and the mechanically (and digitally) produced image is not the focus of debate in these paintings, but rather an implied dialogue between the cultural and experiential value of the depicted subject matter, and the qualities of painting, for promotion to the arena of the canvas.
There is also a sense of magnitude and substance of a particular cultural event generated by a very interesting curatorial decision to place relatively few paintings in such a privileged space. The juxtapositions of the images are neither arbitrary, nor overwhelmed, by the rarified gallery environment. Arguably, the most outrageous example of placement was made in the pairing of ‘Fishing Net’ (2016), a super-sized canvas at over two by four metres, situated alongside ‘Pasta’ (2016), a diminutive 6X2.5cm mini-work. Like an ill-matched pair of anything, it shouldn’t work. But it does. If there is a rulebook for the arrangement of paintings placed together, it breaks the rules splendidly.
The viewer is also aware of walking in and around the space, by approaching each canvas directly as a degree of detail pulls one in to inspect, after surveying from many steps back. For example, the two versions of ‘Seashore’ (2016), one vertical the other horizontal, and ‘Water Spill’ (2014), also engage the viewer’s close scrutiny and a sense of surface as ‘real’ ground, whether it is sand or canvas. The actual linen transmits the fiction of the surface transformed from a visually experienced woven screen that is materially real to the illusionistic ground where space is occluded.
‘Pillow Case’ (2014) is an intriguing composition, where the implied materiality of an actual pillowcase that would typically be constructed from woven material, though preferably cotton and not linen, adds an extra degree of object-ness to the image. The interrelationship between reality, allusion and illusion permeates the reading of the image. Suggestively, if it were not for the presence of the buttons, there is also a hint of Agnes Martin’s minimalist aesthetic in the linearity and light colouration of the canvas, which may not be so arbitrary a reference for Appel’s ability to quietly and meditatively connect with the viewer.
Helene Appel’s paintings prompt reflection on things and situations, in various states of transformation (a net hung up to dry; meat waiting to be cooked; broken glass not yet swept up; a slow moving, shallow wave) – but such scenarios are situated on the edges of our attentive states, as we carry on with our everyday tasks. Provocatively, the actual, or original, materials and forms (pasta, water, cloth, glass) are neither the subject nor the object when rendered as painting. The artist may have painted the images from life, eidetic memory or from reproductions (e.g. a photographic image). We do not know (without asking her) and have the option of constructing our own mini-histories for the making and becoming of the images. Surprisingly, this process magically transforms generally unremarkable content and consequently produces a reverse transubstantiation, where the substance of the body of materials; liquid or apparently solid, natural or artificial, reveals a transformation from painterly materiality to a subtle staging for visual ingestion that is simply, but gloriously, perceptual.
And so, ideally, the paintings force the viewer to look afresh, knowing that one views, and analyses, a proposition of particular forms (pasta, meat, water etc.) presented quite humbly on a surface. Here, the physical depth is shallow, even when the illusion is otherwise. The touch, or gesture, that applied the medium, constructs a fiction. But, nonetheless, Appel’s paintings make concrete propositions that invite interpretations that go beyond superficial appearances.
Interestingly, and somewhat provocatively, the exhibition promotional essay claims that the:
“ …painting is anti-capitalist, because it lingers in a space of authentic and original reflection, hovering where the eye would otherwise skim rapidly, without interest… The artist’s quotidian universe seems to be purified, cleansed by the pictorial gesture whose slow pace might be seen as obsolete in the speed of the contemporary world.”
Certainly, the viewer consumes in the act of looking, which of course is a mental/conceptual process of consciousness, rather than a negative materialistic act. But an ingestion of this imagery might be closer in spirit to the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, in which the discarded and the peripheral is appreciated for its inherent beauty and character, rather than encompassing an implied political act of defiance.
But hey, let’s lighten up. Any item or scenario can be significant, however unremarkable, on a number of levels. This work grows on you, and if it is ultimately successful, nothing can ever look the same again because you will have learned to take more notice – and will be all the richer for the experience.
Geoff Hands, October 2016