Whisper from the shadows: Purdy Hicks Gallery, London

2 - 31 October 2015

Purdy Hicks Gallery


65 Hopton Street
London SE1 9GZ
t: +44 (0)20 7401 9229
f: +44 (0)20 7401 9595


Monday – Friday 10am – 6pm
Saturday 11am – 6pm


Southwark (Jubilee Line) 
or Blackfriars (Circle & District Line)
Buses 45, 63, 100, 381


Light reverberates through Sue Arrowsmith's studio.  It pours through the roof lights and fills the white walled space with its energy.  On the walls, her paintings shimmer.  White on black, black on white, black on black; they are the colours of the presence and absence of light. 


Light is instrumental to Sue Arrowsmith's paintings.  They start with the reflection of light through a camera lens that traps a fleeting spatter of leaves.  She excludes all daylight from her studio to allow the image to travel through the cone of light from her projector to the canvas.  And here, working in the dark, she translates the colour figures into graceful, monochrome marks; the summation or negation of light.  The shadow of her hand drowns the other forms around it as she works.  Each mark is a separate, complete gesture, crystallising the forms of coloured light that kiss the canvas.  In the huge painting, My Shining Hour 2015,there is a sense of the fizzing light of sparklers tracing and racing across the black surface, sputtering and sparking, fading into darkness.


Everything we see in the world around us is a product of reflected and refracted light.  The camera takes this experience and condenses it into a two dimensional image of the shapes and colours of light.  Extraneous information is lost; it is insistently neutral.  Arrowsmith works solely from this single remove.  Her selection of an image is a tacit contract to stay with it and meet all its challenges and problems.  She does not crop or recompose the photograph, only changing its scale to fit the canvas. 

For an earlier body of work, Arrowsmith placed the projector overhead and worked on a horizontal surface below, bent over her paintings till her back protested.  Periodically, she would move around; coming at the marks from different directions. Working horizontally, these marks were very much about touch.  They developed from Arrowsmith's minimal drawings of the 1990s which she calls "diary drawings", the relative weight and precision of each line, a product of the moment in which it was made.  To me, the making of these "flat bed" works is akin to the work of a cartographer, replacing all illusion of contour, depth and perspective with a series of marks that brings these qualities into a single plane to be read by the viewer.  And as an orienteer reads the paper surface of a map as a succession of valleys and punishing hillsides, so the viewer of these paintings feels the push-pull of space explode into three dimensions in their head.


For her new series of works Arrowsmith has moved to working on canvases hung upright on the walls in front of the projector. This use of the projected image remains both a release and a constraint; it frees her of the necessity to focus on the final moment of resolution of the work and allows her to concentrate wholly on the act of painting.  She starts at a point within her line of sight, comfortable in relation to her body.  She uses a brush extender so that she does not have to stretch, scaling her gestures to those of a conversation.  Rather than crawling over and around the canvas she now reaches the extent of her huge canvases by standing on a chair or crouching on the floor to make her marks.  Working vertically, the touch is different.  Each mark is still a single movement of the hand but here the weight is transformed into flow and a more expansive gesture. 


You would think that for such calligraphic marks, Arrowsmith would use a Chinese brush with its fine tip wrapped with shorter, softer hairs that create a reservoir for the ink.  In fact she uses brushes with exceptionally long hairs that flex and flick like a whip, which she discovered in New York.  Known as "pin striping brushes", they are used by enthusiasts to create custom designs on automotive bodies and parts.  Her watercolour paints come from the specialist manufacturers Blockx, a Belgian company founded in 1865.  They produce a watercolour bound with honey that reflects the light.  Looking at One Too Many Mornings 2015, I thought Arrowsmith had touched in small swoops of white paint along the top edge until I realised it was light bouncing off the honeyed black marks.  This use of gloss and matt within the monochrome, creates another dimension in her work.  Tiny marks can suddenly catch the light and reveal themselves, highlighting a hitherto flat area of painting by appearing to move forward of the picture plane before fading away as the viewer changes their position. 


Throughout our conversations about her paintings, Arrowsmith acknowledges the play between chance and control.  She describes how she enjoys the way the velocity of the brush takes over and completes the mark, the way the paper or ground "does the work" but I am struck by her complete mastery of the intricacies of her medium.  She talks about the generosity of the paint, the way it responds to being pushed around until she stops and its viscosity creates an edge.   We've all watched too many episodes of Watercolour Challenge to know that the medium doesn't do this for anyone.  Her confidence to let the materials perform on their own terms comes from a profound and detailed knowledge of the range of possibilities that she has at her disposal.  As such the marks are not chaotic but confident and unapologetic, determined vessels of energy.  Splashes and drips are absorbed into new gestures or left as confirmation of its process of making.  


This command of materials is informed by Arrowsmith's first degree in textiles at Goldsmiths where making was an important part of the course and different material properties were critically examined as they grew into ideas.  Arrowsmith was a student at the time of Goldsmith lecturer Pennina Barnett's Subversive Stitch exhibitions; a reclamation of craft techniques by artists such as Janis Jefferies, Sharon Kivland, Lyn Malcolm and Claire Newton.  Her early work made in the Textiles department, similarly includes texts and images and addresses ideas about gender.  Barnett's exhibition and the earlier text by Rozsika Parker on which it was based, exposed textiles or "fibre art", as a contested subject for artists and a site for feminist work. 


However, Arrowsmith's degree show featured monochrome works, scaled to the human body; black Lycra stretched and squashed over a body of stacked frames, their straight edges pulling the Lycra in different directions to create tensile curves while white strings hung in vertical lines, calmly delineating the black negative space between them.  Looking at these images of Arrowsmith's degree show, the work circumvents the feminist revision of textile practice identified by the Subversive Stitch and has stronger affinities to the post-minimal work of a previous generation of women artists including Jackie Ferrara, Eva Hesse and Dorothea Rockburne.  They used an unprecedented range of media, including earth, cotton, timber, cardboard, and latex, rendered in new formats to fracture the boundaries, not only between the different forms of "high" art but around art itself.  These artists opened up different ways of seeing and thinking about materials and processes and connected them to the world as they experienced it.  There are literal synergies between Ferrara's stacked wooden forms, Hesse's falling threads, Rockburne's monochromes and the sculptural forms of Sue Arrowsmith's degree show.  However, far more important to Arrowsmith's work is the space that this older generation had created for a continued enquiry into the potential of a material process to generate meaning, with an authenticity that replaces a more self-conscious contrivance.


In examining this territory, it is perhaps unsurprising that Arrowsmith's next body of work was post-minimal drawings that through their making, expressed the artist's physicality and sentience within a defined time and space.  There is a formal connection here to the minimal/expressionist work of Agnes Martin.  However, although the reticence of Martin's work asserts its process of making, it attaches this reserve to a sensation that is sublime.  Martin's first grid painting, made in 1964, is called The Tree.  In an interview with Suzan Campbell in 1989, Martin commented “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision”.  It is unfair to give too much significance to Martin's idea of "representation" rather than the perhaps more accurate sense of "embodiment".  However, to think about the possibilities of representation that painting affords, gives us the key to Arrowsmith's current body of work. 


One of Arrowsmith's most recent paintings, Whisper From The Shadows 2015, is comparatively small; black on black, gloss on matt, reflection on absorption of light.  Instead of a myriad of marks, there is a splayed cruciform that essentially divides the canvas into five areas that can be read as a Greenbergian examination of the field of the painting.  The figure appears to spill over the canvas, driven by fluid dynamics and restrained by the surface tension of the liquid medium.  The intimate scale of the work makes it seem entirely possible that it was made through a chance overflow of paint: an innocent accident.  In terms of its absolute assurance and the scale of the figure to the space of the canvas, it prompts a recollection of the work of Franz Kline who in 1948 or thereabouts was allegedly encouraged by Willem De Kooning to project a hugely enlarged sketch of a rocking chair onto his studio wall.  But whereas Kline was interested in the way these epic marks took on an autonomy, Arrowsmith explores her projections as questions of translation and representation.


Painted in gloss, the light brings the branch to the front of the picture plane and creates the sense of a shallow depth of field, a monster tree shrouded in the dark.  The rolling shine makes it difficult to read Arrowsmith's construction of the form.  There are different authenticities at work here.  The tree branch, first seen and then photographed by the artist, has been recreated on her own terms as an intuitive and controlled painting which we can only apprehend by standing in front of it and moving around to see the different areas of paint.  It is almost impossible to catch the whole image; there is always a patch of light that shields an area of the image below.  No image of the work can reconstruct this experience.

The twenty-first century is the age of images.  They proliferate, often as images of images, removes of experience that we decode from a seamless surface of pixels.  And painting which was once a meditation on an image is increasingly a form of mediation of an image as well.  From her capture of an image, Sue Arrowsmith works with conceptual rigour to break it down into her own expressive marks and gestures and gradually rebuilds it, tying it to the picture plane through her articulation of negative space.  She condenses and expands the time contained in the image from the moment of its capture, the days of its making; the swift all over survey of the work that takes seconds, the change in gear to the long study of separate marks and a gradual comprehension of the whole as ideas build in the mind of the viewer.  The silence of the monochrome here gives way to riffs between artist and image that suddenly expose different orders of information within the painting.  Beautiful as Arrowsmith's painted canopies are, these works move beyond translation of images and are a far more profound and thoughtful enquiry into painting itself. 


Sarah Shalgosky