Thérèse Oulton

Serpentine Galleries

Tact: from the Latin tactere, to touch. Wet paint worked into wet paint, with a brush or by hand, has been submitted to gestures ranging from a caress to a cut. Involved in the substance of the paint itself, imagery is so barely distinguishable that it might pass for a trick of the light. Space is subject to constant interruption; heights, depths, and distances have been made only to be unmade. It is a question of control: treated as a temptation, control has been toyed with, then publicly refused. Indeed, so flagrantly has the enterprise of creation been abandoned that the paint seems still malleable, caught midway between obedience and obstinacy. None of this is technique; it is strategy. Tactics: an art of correct distance, a politics of advance and withdrawal.

Faced by walls of worked impasto, the viewer struggles for dominance. Inability to tell parts from wholes, to know whether imagery is intentional or accidental, to plumb those crucial depths referred to in titles (To the Quick, The Heart of the Matter, both 1984), forces a postponement of consumption. When and if interpretation occurs, it is suspended between impossible poles. Paint masquerades as guts pulsing, or as something or someone, or as an external or internal space. Emotional involvement is either close—following the fluctuating movements of each brushstroke as a shifting of the emotions—or disengaged, as huge, apparently structureless structures tower over the individual. Scale is lost: this could be the view down a microscope or a mountain range seen from a helicopter. Coordinates jar: the fleshiness of the great Venetians, the apocalypticism of the British Romantic landscape tradition. The tension between material and spirit seems figured forth in a constant, perhaps inescapable variation between imbrication and alienation, the easy appeal of gesturalism and the harder lessons of the Sublime.

All of these planned disjunctions result in an art that heightens and exposes tensions revealed in the work of the eye—tensions between mind and body, and their relative ascendancies. The disjunctions are ways of situating, then, of casting doubt by a process of temptation. And temptation is figured forth preeminently in an art of faith. The symbolism of these paintings is alchemic. Titles refer to the transmutation of base metal to gold, but deny the possibility of such transsubstantiation, of flesh become God. Yet the title of Thérèse Oulton’s first one-person show, “Fools’ Gold,” stated an inability to sit on the fence. Faith, wholeness, the temptation implicit in a pact to allow the spirit to predominate, are irresistible for an artist, who can never provide that state of affairs but only some poor surrogate for it. “Fools Gold” is a rich pun—as disturbingly rich as Oulton’s paint work itself.

Stuart Morgan