Cambridge

Michelle Charles

Kettle's Yard

Born in London in 1959, Michelle Charles developed her artistic career during the nineteen years she spent in the United States before returning to her home country in 2001. This is her first major exhibition in England since then and (except for three photograms from 1998) consists entirely of work produced in London. Charles’s subject matter includes plastic shopping bags, bars of soap, water glasses (empty or filled with milk), bottles, kitchen scrubbers, tea towels, dust cloths, scrubbing brushes, knitting yarn (sometimes tangled), and flies (and their shadows). One wants to know what she means by these motifs she returns to so insistently: If I counted them correctly, for instance—but it was easy to lose track—there were fifty-four images of flies (or their shadows) in Charles’s exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, seventy-nine of glasses, thirty-six of soap. (The images are painted or drawn mostly on paper, but sometimes on the covers of old books or on canvas.) Surely Charles wouldn’t concentrate on these subjects so incessantly if she didn’t mean something special by them. But on the other hand, these things are so ordinary, so meaningless as particular things, that perhaps it is the act of repetition itself to which the artist wants to call our attention.

Either of those notions might be right, and I’d even say both of them may be true. Even a Fly Has a Soul, which Charles has made the primary title of two suites of drawings here, one from 2003 and one from 2004, certainly makes a clear statement about why one might want to paint so many of them: Each is different, each is an individual, and so each image is a sort of portrait—but only the multiplicity of these differences would establish this individuality, this vital particularity one might call “a soul.” On the other hand, it would be very difficult to find a pantheist committed enough to claim that a bar of soap has a soul, so let’s assume Charles has something else in mind with her Soaps on Economics Books, Series 2, 2002. Indeed, in this group of paintings, the bars of soap barely have any identity at all, but rather approach a purely nominal existence: If it were not for the title, one might just as easily have seen them as abstract quasi-rectangular or lozenge forms representing nothing but various ways of applying paint to a surface.

Of course, all these motifs also relate to everyday life and domesticity—even the housefly is a sort of domestic animal—so the paintings might be part of an argument for taking the quotidian more seriously, for being more attentive to it. But somehow I feel the artist’s attentiveness itself more forcefully in these works than I do any polemic that might be behind it. “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” wrote Simone Weil, and the intensity and humility with which Charles approaches her motifs shares something of that sensibility. Her mark making is so fluent it might be mistaken for bravura, but it is only because her hand is so concentrated on the rendering of the thing perceived that its traces take on such vividness as things in themselves.

Barry Schwabsky