Four texts by Phil Gatenby, 2015
This is a compelling painting that sits on the overlap between observed and observable reality where the idea of optical space (reality) is depicted through linear perspective (the void), the stairs (escalator) and additional rectilinear forms (windows and doors?) that surround the central geometric (polygons) form. Similarly, the materials deployed (paint media and textile print media) confer a quietly sophisticated nudge at key motifs in the legacy of spatial abstraction. The compositional choices you have made convincingly echo exemplar modes of pure abstraction by Mondrian and El Lissitzky, to name but two. The decision to use textile media (either by intent or default) cannot escape association with industrial process and production. Therefore, it seems pertinent to conclude that the machine age is pushed further into late-modernity (second wave machines) through the decision to hint at ‘electric’ stairs rather than static architectural form. On a personal note I find the balance between paint media and textile media extraordinarily self-assured.
There is a sense that the facial and bodily characterisation given to each figure offers the idea that the audience is being actively and urgently confronted in a manner that echoes contemporary “in your face” vernacular speech. If this conceptual assumption is accepted it suggests human qualities such as: strength, conviction and personal empowerment are being foregrounded. Given that each figure appears to be sitting inside their respective trolley, additional ambiguities such as: knowing playfulness and/or challenging the zeitgeist of vengeful capitalism? It appears that the choice to depict the central motif (three figures as a conjoined group) in a staccato manner reminiscent of a photographic stencil may be a tactical intent to reference technological process associated with developed capitalism rather more than the power politics of dislocation. What I mean by this is made visible through the imagined science fiction of early expressionist film work (Fritz Lang: Metropolis 1927). Or, from another standpoint are you minded about reimagining the ‘Three Graces’? Not sure?
There is an extensive range of ideas that have been grounded on making art in a machine age that have evolved from texts written by Walter Benjamin (1936). A key work that gives visual form to this idea was first seen in the exhibition titled: ‘This is Tomorrow’ (1956), via Richard Hamilton’s seminal poster ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different so appealing’. These ideas seem to have a bearing on the direction the three conjoined figures are pushing towards? I am not sure?
If so it would make sense to discover whether or not direct reference to recent social-feminist work such as Cyborg Manifesto (a musing about third wave technology – some argue fourth) by Donna Harraway (1985). Why does this matter? Specifically, the background space (infinite emptiness) hints at the cold consequence of late capitalism although seems unsettled but not yet unsettling enough. When I think of the tilted logic of capitalism in Europe, the sufferings of the Greek people and the seemingly unquenchable thirst for power trumpeted through material acquisition perhaps the background space needs to be blacker than black…
The upper part of this painting is a delight and convincingly secures the idea of landscape in the eye/mind of the viewer. The middle distance (land mass and mountains) adds to this and is pleasingly unromantic to an extent that the value of painterly immediacy and lightness of touch in the depiction of earth and air can succeed.
This (the certainty of painting identity and intent) allows the intervention of the figure (signifier) to be convincingly cut and pasted into the lower part of the work as a visual cypher for historicism (signified). I understand that you are consistently intrigued by historicism and note this when seeing one of your other paintings when I visited the studio. The one that would connect immediately with key historical events and figures in the Netherlands. Moving on. The way the paint is applied when you depict the tight fitting headgear declares considerable connoisseurship. That said, there is an optical ambiguity between fact and consequence. The depiction of the headgear suggests a thickness and richness of textile material inferring that its fit to the head is rather tight?
It is understood that the signal elements of what appears to be a serving girl seek to highlight stereotypical reference points. The literal narrative for this could take a step back in detail to allow the sensory emotive mind to take precedence over reason and logic. Offering the viewer a broader sensory and intellectually challenging feast can then engage in a giving way. This is your call. The fact that you are a woman saying what you wish to say about the status conferred to women who serve is a territory you should explore without external restriction or externally imposed permissions. Time to jump…
This is a strong and compelling painting where the alliance between paint media and textile media is assured. The interdependence of media choice is purposeful, decisive, urgent and raw in a powerful way and by being so its painterly dynamics make invigorating demands of the viewer. What I mean by this is the work is ‘in your face’ in an engaging manner. It has authority. Pleasingly in this instance The figure avoids literal truth and is the stronger for this.