Gallery: Claerwen James : 2006 Flowers Gallery Exhibition: Catalogue Note by Francis Spufford |
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Claerwen James : 2006 Flowers Gallery Exhibition: Catalogue Note by Francis Spufford

Over a long sitting in a life studio, expressions erode, faces settle into patience like a piece of furniture settling on its springs. And of course there's a kind of truthfulness about the process, a form of revelation available about someone in the rest-state to which their features sink, under the weight of time and gravity. But Claerwen James is interested in exactly the qualities that painting from life loses. She paints the moments in the life of faces, extremely vulnerable to time, that a camera can fix. She searches through photographs for a particular quality of presence, hard to describe but immediately recognised when seen. It is as likely to disclose itself to her in an image a hundred and fifty years old as it is in one she took herself yesterday, rattling through three or four rolls of film of a sitter with a careful uncarefulness, a deliberate openness to what may happen between the light and face. Then she addresses herself, not directly to the moment of vivid life, but to what the camera made of it, to what became of it when it was snatched out of the flow of moments, sealed into stillness, and set in strange relationship to the continued life of the face, which we do not see in photographs, but which they always imply, giving the medium its mortal edge. She says, ‘The subject is never the person in the photograph. It's the photograph of the person.' At first, she found what she was looking for almost exclusively in the faces of children, whose selves are in continual metamorphosis by definition, who always begin to change away from the self they were in the picture the instant after it was taken, leaving at least some of that self's possibilities orphaned. More recently, though, she has started to find it in adult faces too, where the processes of change are quieter, the chances of loss or gain from moment to moment less concentrated (a more delicate matter to detect).

Her work stands at a deliberate distance from the moments it explores. James knows that she is making a translation of a translation, that she may be playing Chinese Whispers. And this is one reason why the children of the present in her paintings, and the children of the 1970s, and the children of the 19th century, are all wearing the same flat, graphic clothes. It is the uniform of their remoteness. In the dimension James is interested in, they are all equally far away from us. Not by accident, if the dresses had any date of their own — if there were a moment when the pop art asterisks, teensy Laura Ashley drifts of daisies, and art nouveau wallpaper motifs had all been at home — it would be in the 1970s, the decade of James' own childhood. In a sense, the artist is treating every photograph she responds to as if it had the status of memory, using her own history as an index of what memories look like and feel like to possess; yet not claiming these other memories as hers, not presuming to enter them or to make straightforwardly interpretative decisions about what was happening in the vanished moment when the picture was taken. Perhaps this is why her paintings are so free of the embarrassments that cling to much art about childhood. They are wonderfully scrupulous; they will not try to press upon the children they portray any of those sticky transactions in which a child is obliged to play along with some adult's need for childhood to look, or seem to be, some particular way. (James' refusal here took a particularly pointed form in her earlier painting of Alice Liddell - or rather, of Lewis Carroll's snap of Alice Liddell — in which the unknowable person was recovered from a very knowing image.)

She, like us as we look at these paintings, remains on the near side of a threshold, feeling and responding but not permitting herself to project her response, to mistake it for a part of the moment pictured, which is locked and inaccessible. Instead, she has painted portraits of the second life a moment can have; the strange, partial existence it takes on when the photograph, the flat closed record of the moment, is rewoken a little by attention, is persuaded to unfold just a little by the act of looking. What is behind the sitters now? What kind of a space are they in? A coloured void, or very rarely, a piece of generic indoors, barely equipped with floor and wall and skirting. Their original setting is gone, replaced by a sort of minimal envelope of depth, a place in the mind which has few qualities but the ability to accommodate a solid body — just. It's as if a two-dimensional thing has expanded back into three dimensions, but has not quite gone all the way. The clothes are flat (as flat as pre-Renaissance painted sky, as textiles in a Japanese print, as the illusion-denying surfaces of traditional modernism) yet they cast shadows on necks and arms. And the people have the contradictory degree of substance that the space allows. Their faces look out, but not at us, without the possibility of vicarious connection that painted portraits can usually offer. We are not being gazed at, even when the sitter is full-face. The gaze was reserved for whoever took the photograph; and was completed then, and is over. What we witness here, instead, is the gazing of James' mind's eye. All the emotional work of the painting has gone into modelling as distinct and economical a sense as possible of the measure of what vanished with the original moment: into a tender and disturbing statement of what gets lost with lost time.

Francis Spufford

(Girl With Arms Crossed, oil on MDF panel, 91.5 x 76 cm, 2004)