Though the day I visited was a dull one, the gallery’s long, Georgian windows still managed to capture enough of the sun to bathe its interior in a gentle autumnal glow. It is within here, Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, that new works by Alison Watt hang exactly, quietly, with a precision to hold your gaze. These paintings were so fresh you could still smell the linseed oil.
Watt is best known for her images of folded, swirled, bunched and draped white material that take their cue from a study of 19th painting. Her line of exploration is into the physical and narrative mechanics of presence. The new paintings presented within the exhibition, A Shadow On The Blind, sit alongside older works in a paring that emphasises not only a continuation of theme, but a shift in focus towards an examination of the still life.
I got the chance to meet Watt and talk a little about her work and influences. She feels strongly that as a genre the still life has been overlooked – “it has always been at the lowest level” – and believes that painting’s taxonomy has treated it this way because “it isn’t grand; it is associated with the domestic and therefore, quite often, the female”.
As Watt points out, “historically the still life has always been a really important part of the painter’s repertoire. It says something about them and something about those who commissioned it. In terms of historical statement, the still life is really important.”
By name and nature, still lives are quiet images that, whilst immediately absent of figures, evoke human presence. Presence evoked by absence is what interests Watt most: how we fill in the gaps with our own meaning in order to comprehend, and how this process changes with circumstance.
Watt continues: “The still life is continually being redefined because it reflects us. It has a close connection with the portrait and the self-portrait. In effect, it is a portrait without likeness. In our everyday lives we are all surrounded by objects and whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we create stories around these objects; little narratives, fragmented histories. But the thing about the stories is that they often have very little to do with the object itself and its original purpose. We imbue ordinary things with different qualities.”
Watt and I sit talking in front of a floating piece of cloth that looks as if it is held, pinched in the middle, by an invisible hand. I pointed out that her images had a dream-like and poetic quality to them. I knew that she had previously worked with the poet Don Patterson whose poem Phantom was commissioned for her exhibition of the same name.
The poetry of Watt’s images lies within their focus upon the blank or plain white singular. They engage the viewer in a silent contract whereby one’s own experiences are pulled forth to complete the painting. And, as with all good art, the relationship between the viewer and the work is an ongoing one, the meaning of which can change.
We talked about Catholic upbringings (something Watt and I both share). For her, there was something formative within this experience; particularly in the way she was taught to imagine or believe that the objects with in the Mass were filled with a divine presence. She remembers that Robert Mapplethorpe once said something along the lines of: ‘everything becomes an altar’, commenting upon the effect of his own church attendance during childhood.
For me, I remember feeling so detached from the prayers we chanted (my words not being my own), the symbolism, the ritual, the incense, the stain glass windows with the light from the Sunday you were sacrificing, and those strange priests who you’d take your confession to (“I hit my sister”). I could say that its effect on me was to seek out something comparable in the secular world. Watt and I chat about this and joke too. I smell the linseed oil and notice the light again – incense and windows.
Paintings of creased paper sheets and curled or looped chord are paintings from her memory. But there’s one of a canvas’s reverse; exposing its stretcher. This is a true still life, directly from her studio. All of Watts’ images feel at once familiar and alien, and it is within this strange tension that so many possibilities are held.
Watt said that she looked forward to the changing of the light, as it will affect the space and how her work appears. I agree and look forward to seeing these works again on a different day.
Before I left, I asked Watt if she had ever read the poem Involuntary Description by John Ashbery. It has a quality that reminded me of her work: something that you could be with time and time again, with no one time ever quite the same.
“That his landscape could have been the one you meant,
that it meant much to you, I never doubted,
even at the time. How many signifiers have you?
Good, I have two. I took my worries on the road”
– from Involuntary Description (2005) by John Ashbery
Alison Watt: A Shadow On The Blind runs until 2 February 2019 at Abbot Hall Art Gallery.
Image: Alison Watt in her Studio. Courtesy of the artist and Parafin, London. Photo by John McKenzie