Gallery: Claerwen James : 2008 Flowers Gallery Exhibition: Catalogue Essay by Rachel Cooke |
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Claerwen James : 2008 Flowers Gallery Exhibition: Catalogue Essay by Rachel Cooke

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” Francis Bacon

A girl rests her head on her hand, and gazes at something, or someone, across a room. Her face is shaded with a solemn tiredness, the skin beneath her eyes bruised-looking, her lids ripe with a certain soft heaviness. Her mouth, closed, announces nothing. Is it the suspicion of a smile that we sense on her lips, or the tremulous, dwindling moment of control before she is moved to anger or tears? Frankly, this one could go either way. She catches our attention – our own eyes are drawn to hers with unexpected urgency – and yet, the more we look at her the further she slips from our grasp. She invites, even promises, intimacy, but in reality gives us only an infinite distance. This is her curse and her gift. We will always be trying to get to the bottom of her, even as we remember the sweet impossibility of doing so.

Can we ever truly know another person? Can we ever, come to that, hope to know ourselves? These are questions that the paintings of Claerwen James attempt to answer, usually with a whispered no. ‘Girl in black, white collar’ (2007), the work that I have just described, is a case in point: like all the best portraits, it does that strange, paradoxical thing, combining seeming intimacy — the capturing of the private moment; the paring down of multi-faceted personality into what we take to be raw, essential “character” — with an unnerving remoteness. It calls to us, but no sooner have we approached, than we bang our nose on the glass of — that word again — the moment. It is, after all, only a moment. Whatever “truth” it offers, we must take with a pinch of salt. Behind this painting’s deceptively bright probity lies something darker and altogether more mysterious: the shifting — and shifty — sand of the self.

James does not paint from life; she paints from photographs, old and new. This isn’t only because she finds the presence of a model inhibiting, their physical reality somehow contriving to “drown” her out so that what she paints of them is at once “more factual and less true”. It is because, as she has said before, her subject is the photograph, not the person. But how can this be so? Look at ‘Girl in black, white collar’, or the searching and contemplative ‘Girl in darkness, head back’ (2007), and such a statement seems at first almost wilfully contrary. What James means, I think, is that it is the feeling that a photograph stirs up that she strives to reproduce in her work, not the photograph itself. We go back to that unknowableness: of other people, of ourselves. In her twenties, James liked to look at (or perhaps she could not stop herself from looking at) photographs of herself as a child, and what played on her mind then lives on vividly in her work now: the distance between her two selves, the painful untouchability of the past. Until recently, she painted mostly children. Now, she is drawn more often to women. This is not because she has got the plight of the child — powerless, metaphorically mute, always on the threshold of change — out of her system, exactly. Perhaps it’s more that the older she gets, the more she senses that the things that she — that we all — felt so acutely in childhood never go away. I know no one; no one knows me. She has learnt that a photograph taken a month or even a week ago can be as mysterious and confusing as one that is decades old. In this sense, James is as interested in time as she is in the way that light falls on skin, or the endless qualities of cheekbones and noses. As for character, she knows too much to claim she can nail it. “For me, the paint is the person,” says Freud. James quietly begs to differ.

It would be silly — crass, even — to talk about maturity at this point. Nevertheless, James’s work is developing and deepening, and it is thrilling to see. Gone are the flat, graphic fabrics in which she used to dress her women and children: whether the artist knows it or not, her confidence in her work has grown to the extent that she no longer has need of such a distancing device to suggest the aspic of the instant. She is content to rely on something more subtle, more inherent, to beguile her audience. Her new work, then, is quieter: more lyrical and less calculating. Some of it calls irresistibly to mind the 19th century, the work of Ingres and Corot, while a painting like ‘Girl, face in shadow’ (2007) seems to dance with abstraction until you are right in front of it, at which point you can only sigh at its technical accomplishment. Above all, it is deeply satisfying to observe the way that James has stayed true to her cause — to the apprehension of the opacity of the moment — without ever allowing it to hem her in as a painter.

Rachel Cooke, 3 March 2007