Paint, according to materials scientist Mark Miodownik, is ‘coloured plastic glue’. The function of paint, therefore, ‘is to turn from a liquid into a solid and then stay in place permanently.’ Such an observation may be considered scientifically clinical, devoid of all ‘artistic’ sentiment, but fundamentally Miodownik is right. However, what concerns this art historian is the utility with which paint is applied by artists and painters to convey and express something, whether profound or mundane.
Reports of the ‘painting’s death’ are hardly a new phenomenon; they are both seemingly cyclical and universally tiresome. Beginning with Kenneth Clark, the death of the ‘old’ (oil painting specifically), has been prophesised and foreseen by the readers of the cultural entrails for almost a century. These panjandrums accuse artists of fetishizing the ‘new’, whether photography, collage, film, performance or digital media, whilst painting (if they are to be believed) is literally a ‘dying art’.
It is therefore rather refreshing to be able to revel in the work of a contemporary young artist who persists with painting. Emma Cousin’s work is shown as part of the Bluecoat’s Survey exhibition, (13 April – 23 June). Supported by Jerwood Arts, it brings together the work of fifteen early-career artists, and those invited to exhibit are nominated by their peers.
Of all the works on display Song Drapes by Cousin is the most arresting. Not only does it draw one towards it, it compels contemplation. This is an intriguing work, not only in terms of its subject matter, but also its insistence in demonstrating the power and potency of oil painting.
At over two metres in height and 1.5m in width, it is a large work and needs to be, in order to do justice to the composition. Four female figures, nude or partially clothed, appear to be caught mid-point in an acrobatic display, but this is not a gentle balletic performance. Rather it is a deeply unnerving sight, reminiscent of Goya’s Witches and/or Bacon’s more tortured figures.
The vibrant palette adds to this disquieting scene: there is the bilious yellow (British Leyland?), of the fed upon figure, whose eye catches ours as the central figure greedily bites into her right breast, her mouth open, forked tongue and dagger like teeth evidencing her pain. Then there is the plasticity of the taught skin of the cadaver coloured ‘feeder’ who is being rent away by the green-brown figure above with the oversized hands. There is a visceral, almost indescribable drama between the four figures, whose gravity-defying feats seem destined to end only with the most acute pain. The tranquil, calm blue of the background serves only to launch the figures from the surface of the canvas, to project them forward as though they would crash towards us, snarling, biting and raging.
The handling of paint by Cousin is outstanding, and the thin layers are in stark contrast to the now seemingly standard impasto for figurative works. Could this be evidence that we now live in a post-Freud world? (One sincerely hopes so). The torso and thigh of the inverted figure is modelled with such a deftness of touch that it proves one can achieve, with seeming ease, a sense of form without adding unnecessary, sculptural layers.
This is what a talented painter can do with her media. This is super glue.
Survey is on display at Bluecoat until 23 June 2019.
Ed Montana-Williams is an Art and Architectural Historian and writer based in Liverpool.