Therese Oulton

“But what could replace the object?” Nonfigurative painters continue to be plagued by Kandinsky’s anxiety about the object, as well as his worry about decorative decline. Thérèse Oulton’s recent works offer ample confirmation of the continuity of these primary concerns. Nonfigurative art is now an old tradition, and Oulton’s pictures reflect this simultaneous accumulation of years and withering of horizons. For a young painter, she seems remarkably care-laden, just as her paintings are laden with incrustations and webs that connote airless colors from the Jacobean stage or the memories locked inside Miss Havisham’s wedding-feast chamber in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Two extreme alternatives offered escape from Kandinsky’s anxieties: abolish tactile individuation along with the object, or abolish space. Early, “heroic” Modernism tended to the former; Oulton has adopted the latter.

The paintings in her earlier exhibitions, swirling incrustations of rich color on dull grounds, smeared and smudged toward the semblance of a motif from landscape, earned her accolades from English critics as a “new romantic.” Certainly her style contains echoes of many “painterly” mannerisms of English painting, from Sir “Sloshua” Reynolds (as the Pre-Raphaelites called him) to David Bomberg, along with a somewhat stagey sublimeism. But comparisons with Turner are mistaken, for Turner’s elements were air, space, and vapor, while Oulton’s are earth, mineral, and fabric—suffocating trains and curtains of crystallized brocades and petrified satins. The effect is something like staring into an intricate and enveloping surface (a Pre-Raphaelite effect, paradoxically, despite the painterly mesh). Ruskin, in his studies of Gothic carvings, vegetation, or geology, was caught in similarly transfixing labors, as if unable to move or act for fear of loss, the same loss of the motif that would worry Kandinsky. For what was really at stake was not the place of the object but the primacy of the subject—i.e., what to paint—as Barnett Newman so fervently stated. The real question in Oulton’s paintings, despite the laborious glamour of their facture, is: just what is their subject or motif? One can free-associate from their effects too easily. These are fires that invite reverie, but their embers offer neither original motifs nor definitive gestalts—simply the gorgeous but interminable languor of cooling lava, or, in any case, some process infinitely prolonged and ultimately meaningless.

One way out of the crisis of subject matter is structure, and Oulton’s recent paintings indicate this path. There is even a quotation from Paul Klee on the subject in her catalogue: “Fundamental structure is the measure. The measure is pretty much latent for the ear, [but] nevertheless becomes experienced as structural net . . . ” And indeed the paintings in this show display a steady progress toward cellular structures or patterns, such as honeycombs or the folds of Jacobean ruffs. (The show’s title, “Lachrymae,” is taken from a Jacobean madrigal.) Yet Oulton’s laborious method—a kind of monumental knitting with pigment—makes Klee a difficult model to follow. The ready flexibility that made Klee’s operations so responsive to both formal and pictorial initiatives is hard to achieve in 8-foot skeins of oil paint. In fact, these paintings do not really follow such a model at all. Like many English painters, Oulton mistakes structure for pattern, and it is pattern that we find here. Her true predecessor, curiously enough, turns out to be Bridget Riley, another female English artist who made process into pattern; but whereas Riley took off from optical sensations, Oulton begins with reverie. Reverie lives in images, conjures them, swims in them. Yet Oulton’s pictures never finalize such images; instead, they appear as if at the threshold of a hallucination that never comes into focus, dispersed by their endless intersplicing. It is as if she were trying to synthesize Max Ernst with Riley and succeeded only in weaving a web around her own freedom.

Brian Hatton