Gillian Carnegie

Could drab be the new fresh? You’d swear it’s possible after seeing Gillian Carnegie’s new paintings. Not only are most of them executed in a palette that ranges from dun to olive, but even her most unqualified whites—the sickly pale skin of the subject of her portrait Kalvin, 2004, for example—convey a feeling of grubby impurity. The essential drabness—what I am tempted to call, after Wordsworth, the “visionary dreariness”—of these paintings may be owed less to their color than to the peculiar touch, at once fleshy and mercurial, with which that color has been applied, and this unsettling touch becomes all the more evident when the color lightens.

In this show, at least, Carnegie is at her strongest when the paintings most approximate academic exercise. Surprisingly, given that she first drew attention for a series of (pictorially) impressive close-up views of her own behind, the more inherently striking her imagery—e.g. Piñata, 2004, a hanging bunny figure with half a leg whacked off—the less disquieting its treatment. We’ve all been taught that the browns of the old masters were there to model the figure, to create forms of palpable weight and volume, and that the pure hues of the Impressionists initiated the drift toward modernism by sacrificing solidity to the realization of the flat, decorative surface. Carnegie turns back toward the fusty hues of old pictures rotting beneath their own varnish, not to reclaim some former solidity but all the better to verify her forms’ ultimate evanescence. Here lies her work’s affinity to the cadaverous stink given off by Luc Tuymans’s imagery, however little most of her paintings owe to the “look” of his. If there’s no red to speak of in the tight little roses found in Carnegie’s still lifes Waltz I and Waltz II (both 2004), it’s perhaps to show how the depicted object expires on admittance into painting.

The irony, of course, is that Carnegie is an exquisite handler of paint. The sheer textural variety of these surfaces, not to mention the intuitive rightness of the juxtapositions and modulations with which they are woven, must have been a delight to execute, however successfully they convey a sort of artistic claustrophobia. Even in the landscape Section, 2004—one might better call it a sort of portrait of a tree—the sky does not breathe. Instead the eye is caught up in the dense tangle of branches and disoriented by the way the foreground has been thrown out of focus by a series of seemingly arbitrary smears of paint while the branches just behind are crisply and decisively rendered, for all their want of coloristic differentiation. Somehow there is endless space caught up among those branches but precious little around them. The rather Johnsian Maze, 2003, is a labyrinth without an exit, making this otherwise seemingly off-message painting, the only quasi-abstraction in the show, an apt summation of its prevailing mood.

Barry Schwabsky