Gillian Carnegie, Prince, 2011, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 35 1/2".

Gillian Carnegie, Prince, 2011, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 35 1/2".

Gillian Carnegie

Gillian Carnegie, Prince, 2011, oil on canvas, 27 1/2 x 35 1/2".

How refreshing: an exhibition in which there was no need to focus on anything but the paintings on display. The artist had requested that no press release be issued. There was only a list of titles, with the year of each work and the technical details. That’s all. And so one found oneself standing in a room surrounded by paintings, left entirely to one’s own devices, without any explanation to use as a crutch. We’re not used to this—and so what started out feeling refreshing began to seem disconcertingly unfamiliar. And that’s precisely what English painter Gillian Carnegie is after; she’s attacking our habit of viewing pictures through the prism of outside explanations.

Her way of going about this could be seen in this recent exhibition in Cologne. On view was an assortment of images that were quite different from one another, both in their motifs and technical approaches. Take, for instance, the paintings Nageur (Swimmer), 2012, featuring the surface of the water in a swimming pool painted gray on gray, a head with a rubber cap and swim goggles in the middle of it all. Like most of Carnegie’s paintings, this one was based on a photograph, more than the others in this show, it recalls the graphically superficial art of 1960s Photorealism. The head appears to be simply plugged in to the picture, since the dappled surface of the water around it shows little sign of a swimmer’s motion; it is as still and silent as a submerged memory. People refer to photographs as frozen moments. Carnegie succeeds in translating such arrested instants into what she is painting; they can be felt in all her works, giving them a sense of nostalgia. Remembrance takes place in pictures.

The show included three paintings titled Prince, all from 2011 or 2011–12. Presumably “Prince” is the name of the black cat that appears in all three: first crouching at the top of a flight of stairs in an old, respectable-looking house; next as hardly more than a shadow glimpsed behind the black railing of these stairs; and then sitting on a windowsill, elegant and masterful, with its head turned to the side, one eye fixed on the viewer. The visible black brushstrokes in the third picture give a sense of the animal’s silky fur against a gray background. Although the painted cat is not large—and in one case is almost entirely covered by the railing—it is the most important thing in each of the paintings, giving the impression that it’s being tracked by an obsessive gaze. This intense gaze is what gives Carnegie’s pictures their power.

Carnegie’s paintings are self-contained; they require no explanation and don’t refer to anything but what they evoke. “I prefer,” she has said, “to consider the painting as a thing in the world than the painting as a picture of things in the world.” After more than a century of modernism, paintings are still commonly understood as pictures of things, signifiers of some given signifieds. So self-enclosed works like this, in which the supposedly clear relation between signifier and signified has been disturbed, can make us feel unsettled.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.