Gallery: Claerwen James : 2010 Flowers Gallery New York: Catalogue Essay by Anthony Lane |
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Claerwen James : 2010 Flowers Gallery New York: Catalogue Essay by Anthony Lane

It is time that the paintings of Claerwen James came to America. Most of them are paintings of children; some are of children who glance down or aside, not in shame or demure decorum, but lost in a thought at which we can only guess; other children look directly at us, or past us, as if weighing something more interesting than us that has just appeared over our shoulder. That something now includes the United States.

Why does this matter? Why should we care where a work of art hangs or sits? Try asking an Athenian that question, and you will get a straight answer. But not all sculptures and paintings are national treasures, and many ask difficult questions of the nation that bore them, as anyone who has visited the Neue Nationalgalerie, in Berlin, can testify; the works of George Grosz and Otto Dix, glowering from the walls, are at once a natural source of pride and a knife-like rebuke that will never cease to wound. But what of less clamorous images, whose subjects betray no clear origin, and whose backdrops could be anywhere? Chardin’s “Basket of Wild Strawberries,” from 1761, is now in a Private Collection, and we instinctively feel that we could — and, if there were any justice, should — serve it up in our own homes. The fruit is there for the picking.

Portraits ought, if anything, to be even more well-travelled. They need to see the world. This itinerant urge can, of course, reach absurd dimensions; contemporary reports suggest that the longer the line which snaked outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963, the more the smile of the Mona Lisa, exhibited temporarily within, shifted from mysterious to stony. It is in the nature of any good portrait to withhold as much as it yields, carefully measuring out such information as it contains, keeping plenty in reserve, and thus entering into a new deal, or pact, with every viewer. The fact that Francis Bacon was feted when his first major retrospective was shown in Paris, in 1971, is a matter of social history; but the paintings themselves became something other, enriched and unexpected, when seen through Parisian eyes, just as the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe was not just translated but transfigured by its admiring readers in nineteen-century France.

No Baconian carnage stains the surface of a work by Claerwen James; no paraphernalia of horror and hysteria detain her, although sensitive viewers may detect, here and there, a tell-tale heart. She paints from photographs. That is to say, she collects photographs — found in books or on old postcards, plucked from family albums or handed over by friends — and proceeds from the two-dimensional image, in preference to a living sitter. She starts from a snap of herself, taken decades ago, or of Alice Liddell, taken not in Wonderland but through the ordinary lens of Lewis Carroll’s camera: two bright children, armed with inquiry. We like to think of a photograph as an instant frozen in time, in which case the task of this particular painter is to thaw it out. The paintings remain very still and unexcitable, but that does not make them uneventful; they defrost their central figures and reanimate not just the moment to which the photograph bore witness but the broader span of life which the photographer, whether by chance or design, happened to interrupt. Thus, in “Girl Lying on a Chair,” we want to ask: who chose the pose? Was the girl tired, slipping sideways and resting her head against the arm of the chair — which looks too unyielding for comfort — or did the photographer, perhaps a parent, direct her move? If so, where does that leave the finger lightly pressed against her lip: is that a reflex, unconscious habit of hers, or might it signal an uncharacteristic anxiety?

One reason why we feel impelled to pose such questions, of course, is because the hands and face gleam out so strongly from the surrounding hues. Whether the original photo was black-and-white or color we cannot tell, but, as if to honor our uncertainty, there is a fleeting memory of monochrome in the range of colors which the painter has summoned for the occasion — in the damsons and bruises and pigeon-wing greys that shift and share the purplish space, and in the touching near-miss, or half-rhyme, of the girl’s top and tights with the more storm-clouded tones of the wall behind her. She is both a product of her immediate environment, with its brooding color-climate, and a singular presence: an emergent, unmistakeable soul who is already so much more than her backdrop. She is, in short, a child, and not for much longer.

It is American spectators, again, who will derive more from their transactions with a painting such as this than would their counterparts in England, the crammed country where James lives and works. The deep-smoked violets and broken-ember reds that burn softly in parts of these paintings are likely to bear aromas familiar to any New York gallery-goer raised on Rothko, while even the briefest stroll through the serene spaces of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series — pausing, say, before, numbers Nine, Twenty-One, Thirty-Nine, and Forty-One, to taste the colors and admire the view — will put the same viewer in the mood, and the frame, for a gratified scrutiny of the green-grays, blue-grays, and sadness-grays that unroll across the flat, prop-free backgrounds of James’s portraits. She admits to having “unlimited time for Diebenkorn,” and that boundless patience has paid off.

What we know of these paintings counts for less, in the end, than what these paintings know. “She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words of concealment.” That is the six-year-old heroine, freshly torn between her divorced and quarrelsome parents, in “What Maisie Knew,” published in 1897, and still the best American depiction of an inchoate mind that puts away childish things, piece by piece, in the face of adult corruption. “She saw more and more; she saw too much,” writes Henry James of Maisie, and it is a cause for wonder that two of the sharpest observers of observant youth — James and his friend John Singer Sargent — should have been childless themselves. One would laugh at the poor infant, in Sargent’s “Dorothy,” (1900), with her giant meringue-nest of a hat, were it not for the steady stare of those black eyes, which seem to peer into a predestined future and, more frightening still, agree to take it on. Then there is the celebrated quartet of girls, aged roughly from four to fourteen, three of them looking outward, in “Daughters of Edward Darley Bolt,” which was painted by Sargent as early as 1882, and acclaimed by Henry James for “the sense it gives us of assimilated secrets and of instinct and knowledge playing together.”

That play is what we find, anew, in Claerwen James. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but an adult who knows only a little is a fool, whereas a child who knows little, being a child, can be a danger to adults, especially if what he or she knows is about them. And especially if they don’t know, being fools, that the child has been watching. We should not expect, as we follow the progress of this exhibit, to fathom what secrets these girls, these women-in-waiting, have to harbor, and James is not in the business of digging around to unearth them; she has no need of expressionist roilings of paint, no slabs and swipes of impasto, in her accounts of what the novelist would call their inner life. Hers, instead, is the calm register of the outer life, yielding a private landscape of detail that is ours to traverse and parse. All we can say, perhaps, is that the existence reflected in these children’s eyes is not, and never will be, as regular as the pattern on the fabrics from which most of their dresses are woven. And, lest that reflection tempt us too far into melancholy, we are asked to stand back; only thus can we confront the latest and largest painting in the show — completed, as it were, in time for the dress rehearsal. “Watson’s Bay 1976” is the only picture with a place and date attached; this recollection of a day (not just any day) at the beach (not just any beach) is too precise not to be honored and fixed. It is also the only picture that requires its creator, in reaching towards the past, to venture en plein air. As we concentrate on the younger child, and that foot eternally raised, we cannot help but wonder — in regard both to the art of Claerwen James, and in the path of life awaiting that small, intrepid figure on the sand — what the next step will be.