Gallery: Sarah Raphael : "Strip!" by Andrew Motion |
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Sarah Raphael: "Strip!" by Andrew Motion

Sarah Raphael first made her name in the 80’s with a series of immaculate, intense Freudian portraits. Then came a number of allegorical and symbolic works — strange narratives of oppression and disturbance. In 1995, following a longish trip through the Australian outback, she exhibited her Desert Paintings: gorgeously sombre investigations of space and distance, in which points of view were uncertain and relationships volatile. Now comes Strip! It’s instantly alluring, yet also full of intrigue.

On the face of it, Sarah Raphael’s development covers a lot of ground. It moves from naturalism to abstraction, from outward looking to inward gazing, from knowledge about the world to doubt of everything. She’s candid about this idea of a career-in-progress, describing it as ‘ego stripping. I’m aware,’ she says, ‘that people are impressed by an ability to take hold of and trap the three-dimensional world on a flat surface, in the way that an orthodox portrait does. But I’ve always felt a need to liberate myself from the necessity of pleasing others, and in the process to please myself by liberating the sub-conscious. This is why the Desert Paintings were so important to me. They proved that I could remain disciplined if I turned my back on naturalism. The Strip! paintings build on that’.

It’s a fair enough summary — and it helps to explain why she’s such an exciting painter. There is in her work a sense of challenges addressed and overcome. Challenges to explore the self more deeply, and to lengthen still further the reach of her technique. But the comments are also in a sense misleading, since they mask the ways in which all her work had been driven by a particular set of imperatives — imperatives which are responsible for a good deal of its energy, as well as its integrity.

Chief among them is an obsession with the act of communication. Think of the Portrait of Joshua with a Blue Cushion, which she completed shortly before beginning the Desert Paintings. Here a naked, thick-set, curly-haired young man sits on a chair in the corner of a room (a room which might be a studio, and is littered with haunting abstract shapes), leaning forward into a cushion placed on a tall stool. His left cheek lies on his right hand, and his face is turned away from us. Is he sleeping or thinking? We can’t be certain. It is a highly ambiguous pose, at once vulnerable and defended, open yet guarded; it raises hopes of intimate contact between viewer and subject but disappoints them.

The same ambivalence is at the heart of Strip!. The series is made up of paintings which take familiar forms and formats of cartoons — those visual devices made for easy understanding and quick pleasure — and deny their traditional opportunities and outcomes. We read from left to right and expect something in sequence — but find only bafflement. We discover speech-bubbles, idea-bubbles, jagged shock-bubbles — but they are all empty. We pick out images which remind us of rugby balls, or golf tees (or whatever) — but their meanings soon shrivel in the absence of supportive context. We look for colour to modulate but it still remains acrylic — hard, and not on terms with its neighbours. And the result of all this? The paintings stir our deep interest in and sympathy for the powerful feelings they represent, but at the same time hold off and hold back. They show a heartfelt development of the tensions in the Portrait of Joshua. They are ‘strip’ as a revelation and as suppression.

Not that all the paintings tell the same story. Raphael says she began in 1995 with the Study of Strip included in this show: a pen and ink drawing in which twelve rows of assorted images tell a delightful nonsense-tale. Some of the forms are recognisable (lemons, propellers, cones, lightshades), some mysterious (mutant pasta-shapes, peculiar erotic clefts and bulges) — and although we are not meant to discover some stable core interpretation, a governing mood does nevertheless emerge. The drawing, for all its sullen shades, is cheerful and talkative — often funny and never dull. Moreover, its refusal to spell out an exact proposition means that it is allowed to embody ‘art’ in a pure sense. (Raphael has sometimes talked about her feeling that ‘painting, as a branch of contemporary fine art, is in danger of being side-lined if it forgets to remind us that it’s singular’.)

Much of the same thing applies to the series proper — except that here the non-communication is faster, the broken dialogue more urgent, the mood generally darker and more disturbed. This is immediately obvious in Page 1. The twelve rows of the drawing have now increased to thirteen, and the range of unrecognisable shapes has expanded significantly: as well as pasta and bulges there are whirring fan-things, terrible string-muddles, lonely lightning flashes, fragments of Henry Moore sculpture in deep space. These all create a mood of threat and chaos, yet their treatment (thanks largely to the cartoon format and the expressionless application of the paint) is very controlled. Desperately controlled, you might also say.

In Page 2 the demons have backed off a bit, and the sun has come out. Yellows predominate, shapes are calmer, and apprehensions are more delightful — are sometimes, indeed filled with a child-like glee (those spotty yellow fish, and their jolly green cousin two thirds of the way down on the right). Once or twice there are ratty intrusions, or agitated repressions. Occasionally an empty speech-bubble seems heavily threatening rather than light and free as a floating balloon. But these moments are usually checked or over-ridden. Whatever troubling matter is driving the series forward has been bridled; pleasure in work, in painting, has won the day.

This pleasure is never compromised, throughout the series. Indeed, in Page 3, it intensifies still further, on a canvas (Page 1 and Page 2 are on paper) which is more interested in colour than shape. Those yellow fish are still there (now strangely changed into Martian nipples), and so are the empty thoughts; but they are dominated by boxes full of other, smaller, differently-coloured boxes. Everything is flat, clear-cut and yet at the same time slightly woozy — like the shapes which appear when you rub your eyes too hard.

Or maybe like the start of a headache, before the pain starts. Because when we look back at Page 3 from Page 4 and Page 5 it is difficult not to see it as the prelude to trouble. In the next two paintings calm becomes confusion, steady-pacing turns into hectic hurrying, all the immanent threats of silence become real, and the clearly defined rows of boxes multiply and shrink into a kind of mayhem. (It is a mayhem where forms are allowed to leave their ordained place, and risk the menace of flux.)

Objectively, these middle paintings look like a giant microchip, or a radio with the back off. Subjectively, they feel neurotic, threatened, introspective — and if this were all they felt, there would be a problem. But it isn’t. Colour keeps its bright nerve. The surface of the canvas insists on rejoicing and erupting in what look like fridge magnets. It’s as though some big but unspecified personal crisis has demanded — and won — a resolution in work, and in commitment to the values that work requires.

Page 6 and Page 7 are a loose corresponding pair, in which the crisis seems to be contained. Contained by the same elements that began the process of resolution: by the healing intensities of art itself. Colours begin to find each other in Page 6, making little mercury-trails, or ladders, or stairs — of blue, or blood-brown, or gold — where the confused eye finds comfort. And in Page 7 fish-shapes (or are they leaves?) start to make space for themselves — even annexing the whole bottom third of the canvas. The world is still shown to us as something squeezed and miniaturised, but it is full of signs of returning life. Painting is permissible once more.

As if to prove the point, Page 8 is the only painting in the series to have no drawn grid; although the different forms exist in rows, they are given a new kind of autonomy. And the images are richer and more robust, as if to show the original values of art and humanity reasserting themselves. They do this without any simple surrender to easy solutions. Even after all that has been endured and assimilated in their early and middle pages, these paintings end by insisting on the need to record what is desolate as well as what is beautiful, what is incomprehensible as well as what is plain. In this sense they validate Sarah Raphael’s ambition to ‘gaze upon an object and paint it as truthfully as I can.’ The honesty of their emotions is compelling: they are prepared to admit what is possible, as well as what is not.

(from Sarah Raphael: Strip!, London Marlborough Gallery exhibition catalogue, June 1998)

Illustration: Strip Page 5 (detail)