Gallery: "Desert Paintings" catalogue note by William Boyd |
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"Desert Paintings" catalogue note by William Boyd

Andacht zum Kleinen’ — devotion to small things — was how Paul Klee tried to define one of the key components of his art and the phrase came strongly to my mind when I was faced with Sarah Raphael’s new work. Looking at these large refulgent canvases — all bricky ochres, bleached yellows, burnt Siennas — you may think the notion seems, at first glance, almost spectacularly invalid. Writers like to reach for a succinct authoritative quote to encourage and buttress the thrust of their argument and the last time I wrote about Sarah Raphael’s work I embellished the text with Auden’s line about landscape being but ‘the background to a torso’. And now in this new show we are faced with a bold and signal absence of torsos; landscape — nature red in tooth and claw — faces us unadulterated by the human form or figures, the mothers and children, sometimes caricatured, sometimes doll-like, that had appeared to be such a Raphaelesque signature.

But at the risk of getting it wrong again, Klee’s dictum still seems to me particularly, if paradoxically, apt. Sarah Raphael has always been happy with a confined scale, particularly in her portraits, some of which are very small, and she brings to them an accuracy of line and a fiendish delicacy of touch that illustrate in exemplary fashion the miniaturist’s poised and rapt precision. And the new portraits in this show reproduce this finesse with, if anything, even more aplomb. Peer closely and marvel how Sarah Raphael wields what must surely be the finest single-haired brush in the world; marvel also at the hours of patience and dedication implicit in such painstaking effort. Here, surely, is one aspect of the devotion that Klee was talking about.

But the idea of ‘devotion’ can carry more freight than that and it is when we turn to the large canvases inspired by the Australian desert that we begin to understand how charged the word can be. Sarah Raphael confesses how shocking and daunting these lurid and arid vistas were when she first found herself faced with them. An artist whose technical skills had always been the trustiest of allies suddenly discovered that these new configurations of rock, sand, shale and scrub left her feeling bizarrely helpless, almost bereft. Once can see — one can deduce — from the smaller studies in the show, how salvation was arrived at and how the large canvases were born.

And the lesson is salutary. If, like me, you agree with the critic Robert Hughes’ asseveration that it is, in the end, ‘only the long tussle with the real motif’ that allows the radical distortions of abstraction and modernism then Sarah Raphael’s development, as enshrined in this new work, bears this out admirably. To move from the stark figurative clarity of the two Greek landscapes (which to my mind recall the best landscapes of Stanley Spencer) to the massy nuanced color tones of the desert paintings is to experience a palpable frisson of excitement. The temerity and the bravery of initiating such a change in style are emotions experienced no less by the spectator than by, I should imagine, the artist. It is a tribute to Sarah Raphael’s ‘long tussle with the real motif’ that such an audacious formal shift delivers such sheer aesthetic pleasure (and, it should properly be added, it is also a tribute to the efficient catalyst of the Villiers David Travel Prize).

The big desert landscapes seem to me to be a felicitous congruence of many forceful currents, blending the real strengths and resources of Sarah Raphael’s gifts as a draftsman and painter with the resources of art, or more particularly twentieth century art. Like her small portraits these large pictures are worked to an astonishingly meticulous degree — the minute brushstrokes, the tiny pointillist flecks (recalling Aboriginal stick paintings) — the manipulation of colour and texture (raw pigment has been laid down the canvas, red oxide and yellow ochre, some actually dug by the artist from local ochre pits) and with phenomenal diligence have been transmuted into something greater. One hesitates to employ words like ‘transcendent’ but I do think these paintings transcend or transfigure the multitudinous sum of their parts. They are, on one level, works of brilliant hyper-realism: every pebble-shadow, every seam of frangible rock or dessicated twig has been precisely rendered. But the eye almost refuses to register these details, such is their profusion. And, on another level, the paintings take on the eerie and quasi-mystical properties of colour field abstraction. It is as if George Seurat met Mark Rothko in the Australian outback and this luminescent offspring was the astonishing result.

The desert paintings explore other possibilities of vision too. In some we are given a point of view to cling to — tufty clumps of grass or scrub — a field of termite-mounds — that appears to promise a perspective, that hints at a panorama or an aerial view. Other pictures, though, provide no conceptual handholds. Is that a cliff face? Is that a vision of migrating dunes? Songlines curving through the mica-ed fields of blazing sand? The warmth and patina of the graded colour tones, the complex textures, the evanescent forms defeat our attempts at ranging and sorting them into ideas of order and we are left literally mesmerised.

Which is no bad state to be in before a modern painting. What makes these works different, what makes them remarkable, is that they manage to exploit the grandeur, the elemental aspects of abstraction but without resort to the aleatoric dribble or smear or the moody hypnosis of swathes of blended colour or the brute vigour of the gestural brush slash. The particular method Sarah Raphael has evolved to reproduce the inspiration of the Australian desert is to combine her ‘devotion to small things’ with a weighty and due reverence to the awe-inspiring contemplation of nature in a place on earth at its strangest and purest. Pascal looked into the night sky and testified to the mortal fear instilled by the ‘silence éternel de ces espaces infinis’. The Australian desert, it seems to me, has worked a similar spiritual shrivening on Sarah Raphael, has provoked a similar re-evaluation of the human condition (is this why these landscapes are unpeopled?), and her art has more than risen to the challenge.

(Desert Paintings exhibition catalogue, Agnew's Gallery, London, 1995)

Painting by Sarah Raphael: Gibber Desert Constellation (I), 90.2 x 60.3 cm, 1994–95