In: figurative painting
Pat Douthwaite | Bernard Berenson at Leptis Magna, 1966March 31, 2023
Pat Douthwaite | Bernard Berenson at Leptis Magna, 1966
I am only a picture-taster, the way others are wine – or tea – tasters.
Years ago when I was on a panel talking about ‘modernism’ I offered a line from Clement Greenberg, that is one of my favourites (not solely for the idea expressed, but also as it seemed to fly in the face of many of the karaoke modernists who attended that discussion on the prairies who are sure ‘art’ ended with hard edged painting several decades ago): that we evaluate artwork with the criteria we have now, but fully understanding that this criteria can and must change.
Greenberg is one of the ‘old gods’ of the Western art canon – like Bernard Berenson, the erstwhile subject of this painting by Douthwaite. The site that Berenson is ‘visiting’ in this painting is of significant archeological important (more on that can be read here). Berenson (1865 – 1959) was an American art historian specializing in the Renaissance, but his influence was much more than that, and he is one of the shoals of Western art history that is to be negotiated.
But – in deference to contested narratives, and considering how Douthwaite has, like too many female artists, not garnered the acclaim of some of her male colleagues – I also offer Atwood’s iconic line: “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.” Douthwaite’s paintings have a striking originality, and though she’s often compared to Chaïm Soutine he is also – like Douthwaite – an artist whose work is immediately recognizable. This painting has a carnivalesque quality to it, and the ‘skulls’ suggest a merry dance of death…. she often “referred to herself as the “high priestess of the grotesque”, aptly describing her dedication to the arresting, often haunting, figurative work that carved out her place within British postwar art…[Douthwaite] was a distinctive and complex artist rather than [simply] a “difficult” woman, as she was sometimes described.” (from here)
Douthwaite’s approach is unique: ‘Instead of the traditional easel set up, Douthwaite preferred to paint on the floor: ‘I crawl around the floor on my knees, with a butcher’s apron round me, moving from drawing to drawing or canvas to canvas.’ She was unconventional in her painting technique too and rather than use brushes she worked the images up from the surface of the canvas using paint-soaked rags. She often depicts death with humour as if to underline the absurdity of life.’ (from here)
Pat Douthwaite was born in Glasgow in 1939 and initially studied mime and modern dance with Margaret Morris. She is primarily self taught, though in 1958 Pat lived in Suffolk with a group of painters. From 1959 to 1988 she travelled widely (North Africa, India, Peru, Venezuela, Europe, USA, Kashmir, Nepal, Pakistan, Ecuador) and from 1969 lived part of the time in Majorca. Douthwaite exhibited with the Women’s International Art Club in London between 1960 and 1966. She returned to spend the rest of her life in Scotland, passing away in 2002 at Dundee. In 2005 the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh mounted a memorial exhibition to mark her life and work.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Shani Rhys James | Woman Smoking, 2011March 7, 2023
Shani Rhys James | Woman Smoking, 2011
“If painting doesn’t offer a way to dream and create emotions, then it’s not worth it.” (Pierre Soulages)
“Through the dialogue between paint and word, issues of domesticity, rootlessness and the relationship between women and the home will arise within the claustrophobic space, revealing how the places in which we live can say so much about who we are.” (Karen Price, from here)
There is a directness to James’ paintings – her moments that are both captured and created – of everyday, potentially ordinary scenes that is belied by her facility in paint. The physicality of the medium as employed by James’ is reminiscent of Lucian Freud (“She lathers and slathers on the paint with a kind of unrestrained glee” asserts Michael Glover), and the charged nature of what she presents to us is of the same ilk. Something has just happened, or is about to happen: there’s a quietus here, portentous and mildly unnerving.
The tight compositions of figures in rooms that seem suffocating were also a factor in the many works that James made about life during COVID lockdowns: “The claustrophobia of the interior is a metaphor for that frustration of being unable to express deep feelings of creativity, or to be involved in pertinent worldly issues.”
James also offers – not about this painting specifically, but applicable here that “my over-scaling of flowers [in the wallpaper] evokes either a cloying or menacing atmosphere, both repellent and seductive.” (from here)
Shani Rhys James is originally from Australia, but has lived and worked in Wales for since 1984. A more complete history can be read here.
If I may inject a touch of subjectivity, with the disclaimer that my mind often goes to dark places: when looking upon James’ people, I was reminded of an exchange in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners, where the painter Dan McRaith finally shares some of his work with the main character Morag Dunn. McRaith figures, in the Gunn’s initial response, have ‘eyes [that] seem distanced, distorted–no, not distorted; the flesh mirrors the spirit’s pain, a greater pain than the flesh even if burned could feel. A grotesquerie of a woman, ragged plaid-shawled, eyes only unbelieving empty sockets, mouth open in a soundless cry that might never end, and in the background, a burning croft. Morag turns and looks at him, after looking at this last painting. “The dispossessed.”’
“Shani Rhys James is arguably the most exciting and successful Welsh painter of her generation. Her considerable reputation, both in Wales and beyond, continues to grow apace. She has exhibited with Martin Tinney Gallery since 1993 and subsequently her work has appeared in exhibitions throughout Britain and mainland Europe. William Packer, the distinguished art critic, has spoken of her as a painter of remarkable power, whose paintings are as convincing as anything currently being produced in Britain.” (from here, where you can see more of her fine works and learn about her many accomplishments)
~ Bart GazzolaRead More