In the time since Tricia Gillman began painting, exhibiting, selling her large canvases, from the twentieth century to the twenty-first, painting has been variously ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘over’ and ‘back’.
Gillman’s work has been described as Colourist, Expressionist, bold, vivid, Symbolist and yet she firmly defines her work within the language of Abstraction. She says ‘Abstraction for me provides a terrain where I can reference the multi-layered nature of experience.’
Or in Gerhard Richter’s description: ‘When we describe a process, or make out an invoice, or photograph a tree, we create models; without them we would know nothing of reality and would be animals. Abstract pictures are fictive models, because they make visible a reality that we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.’
The artist declines overt narrative, or story telling in her work, and yet in a retrospective there is a natural chronological structure, and Gillman does indeed see her whole body of work as a journey travelled. The earliest works here, ‘Como’, ‘Carambola’, ‘Red Boudoir’ and ‘Ugu’ were painted in the 1980s, when Gillman first moved to London after studying in Leeds and teaching in Newcastle for a period. She was living in Shadwell, and would walk every day to work in a studio inWapping. This was pre-regeneration, before yuppies began buying up warehouses – the cityscape was post-industrial and unloved.While you don’t see the greyness here, the circular movement and energy was inspired in part from the rubbish whirling through the windy urban wasteland. The colours are hot, both literally and metaphorically, magenta, red – Gillman looks on these works as a young woman’s paintings, ‘stirring the pot’, full of energy and sex.
The Matisse influence is clear in ‘Red Boudoir’, echoing the 1908 Red Room in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with its deep and warm enfolding colour, the Japanese sense of flatness and deliberate playing with depth and planes leaving the eye to dart forwards and back, difficult to focus but deeply pleasurable, to allow the visual sensation to overwhelm you. Abstraction is moving in, but the bowl of oranges in the bottom of the canvas nod to the importance of still life for Gillman, not just as a technique but also in the sense of placing objects in a space. (The part of art class I always enjoyed best was arranging these wholly unlikely setups, feather next to overripe pomegranate,) and there is a sense that this is how Gillman paints, but the same discipline of choosing and placing, taking things out of the world and giving them a different life. She says: ‘The conventions of still life are never far away; with its crucial placing and relationships between things, on a table, imbued with a sense of the inherent metaphorical “stage” for life … I like the sense of laying out your cards … to try to persuade these disparate linguistic parts and passages to speak to each other, to cross territories of behaviour, and co-habit in a new place, where transference, physical sensation and feeling, take precedence over fixity of meaning or reference.’
In the early nineties, the flatness becomes a more distinct framing device, and part of the painting physically separates, although the two canvases are bolted together, recalling altarpiece structures. The main canvas was painted first. The appendage was always added as part of each painting’s development. She describes how the painting’s latent content required it, as opposed to a purely physical need for more space. The additional canvas adds another dimension, something structural or sculptural, giving the impression one could, despite its size, pack it up and take it away.
The colours change too, reds and magentas are replaced with a lilac that remains through the work right up to the present day, as in ‘Middle Ground’ along with luminous colours under black, in ‘Underworld’, ‘Swing Low’, ‘Blackboard’. She acknowledges a mother and child theme here, now that she has a baby in the house and is painting in her front bedroom. If it is a kind of wish, the painting produces another painting, the artist to beget herself, were one to make a psychoanalytic reading of these works, it is certainly relevant to note that Gillman’s son has just graduated from art school.
The continuing creative tension in the work of the 1980s and 1990s, between visual fact and the drive for abstraction or sensation, recalls de Kooning’s comment ‘content is a glimpse’. The phrase ‘visual fact’ is one Gillman uses herself, but not necessarily to mean a figuration or a recognisable object, but rather a more physical property, the blob of paint, the line, the colour. The large canvases here, ‘Middle Ground’, and ‘Underworld’, started with the artist painting the whole space one colour and then scraping, adding, etching. At this time Gillman was a senior lecturer in painting at Central St Martin’s, immersed in the theoretical and critical thinking around art practices, mark making, deconstruction, aesthetics and semiotics that continue to abound in art education but were not so much a part of Gillman’s time at Newcastle in the 1970s. She describes talking about the layering as an overt semiotic tactic questioning and testing visual objectivity for the first time, having been concerned with deconstruction and reassembly since beginning to practice.
In 2001, a series called ‘Bedrock’ emerges. These works are much lighter, without heavy thick brushstrokes, the framing devices dropping away. Gillman is clearing away, stripping things out. Before she starts work now she walks through the park, the graveyard. She also has a beautiful garden herself, and plant life becomes important now with leaves and roots and seedpods all coming through. She describes literally planting things on the canvas, going back to the ground, another kind of visual fact.
These works are fundamentally related to the concurrently painted ‘Dark Light’ canvases, which act as the inverse, starting with a black ground, and concerned with depth and space. Gillman says:
‘Starting with apparent opposites; surface as space, dark as light, the absolute of “darkness” reveals itself as relative. The autonomous elements, distinctly made, become mirroring polarities. So, in the “black paintings” and the “white paintings”, the format as container is filled and emptied, posing possibilities for space, light and embodiment, playing out a rhythm of cycles, balances, repetition, weight, fallow and fruit.’iv
These are followed by a series of smaller works, with light markings almost like those made by children’s crayons. Several are shown here including ‘Chinese Whispers’, ‘Chanson D’Hiver’. These form part of the clearing out process, but have their own energy, making traces and tracks over the emptiness, a continuing polarity between all the objects and colours. These works are as near as Gillman gets to Minimalism. She approaches, picks out the particular energy of reducing the pictorial to its necessary parts and in 2006 produces ‘LimeWalk’, a vibrant play of colour. The contrast brings to mind an exchange between Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock recorded by Lee Krasner:
‘When I brought Hofmann up to meet Pollock and see his work which was before we moved here, Hofmann’s reaction was — one of the questions he asked Jackson was, “Do you work from nature?” There were no still lifes around or models around and Jackson’s answer was, “I am nature.”And Hofmann’s reply was, “Ah, but if you work by heart, you will repeat yourself.” To which Jackson did not reply at all.’
‘LimeWalk’ is a zinging blast of a painting. Clear luminous green creates a surprisingly flat and yet light background which acts as base for expressionist play, dark splodges and splatters dance around the canvas, insects in a late spring or early summer garden, coming up upon clumps of violets, or a swarm of butterflies. Careful patterns return as slighter framing devices at the edges, like the peeling away of wallpapers, or a reminder maybe, that everything changes, nothing here is a permanent fixture. As a whole this is a forcefully structured and concerted exposition of nature and painting.
The play continues between figurative things: a Celtic roundel, Fra Angelico’s angels and Egyptian hieroglyphs as well as distinctive, or recognisable patterns, William Morris print – in ‘Roundelay’ (2009) and other works of this period. This mass of ‘things’ seems relentless, the increase of images surrounding us in the twenty-first century. Various studies quote the average person as seeing between 245 and 3,000 advertising images per day. During the average twenty-minute period in 2010, 2.14 million images were uploaded to Facebook. Gillman talks about ‘the collision of contemporary, scrambled semiotics with the lost possibility of authentic reference.’viWhat chance does abstraction have with this kind of onslaught?
These later works are in many ways most obviously post-modern in the sense Umberto Eco describes when discussing how to say I love you to someone who knows such clichés have been made redundant by trashy romantic culture:
‘Still there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.’
In the most recent paintings Gillman returns to her own hybrid vocabulary rejecting the plethora of distinct and recognisable image references of the preceding series. The play with depth reappears with the shades of lilac, greens and blues and then the paler grounds with a more finespun line, plant life again. The detailed drawing contrasts with the seemingly accidental mark making, drips and splodges of paint, each questioning the other. Perhaps, as a counter to the earlier works of the 1980s, works like ‘Melisma’, ‘Sweet Mexican Dream’ and ‘Myriad’ are cooler, calmer, no less or more certain, but a different woman’s paintings with a different understanding in perception. The facts have not changed but how the artist deploys them has.
Gillman speaks often of Braque’s late studio paintings, the chance to throw everything up the air, all the motifs, techniques, ideas and colours, and see what comes back. These works are not innocent, they acknowledge their influences: Matisse’s colour and atmosphere, de Kooning’s slippery paint, Braque, Caulfield, Fra Angelico. But they are beacons, altarpieces for our age of lost visual innocence. Painting here is not ‘in’ or ‘out’, it just is.