CARR Brackish II. 2014, oil on canvas, 92 x 113 cm.jpg


Opened Ground

4 November - 3 December 2016

Private View
Thursday 3 November 6:30 - 8:30 pm

Claudia Carr is known for her ambiguous paintings; the artist works from life but her paintings border on abstraction. In this new body of work, the artist has worked from a restricted palette of black, white and yellow ochre, extracting as much chromatic activity as possible and exploring the tensions of working within such parameters. They are about the interaction of colours, rather than colour itself.

A long time in production, the act of looking at the same thing for hours on end builds a uniquely intense relationship between the observer and the observed. Possibly it is this protracted and intimate engagement that pushes the artist’s vision beyond the real. The vagaries of perception are as much her subject as the objects themselves; the slippage between what you see and what is actually there.

Opened Ground, the title of the show, is a recognition of the resonance she finds in Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Her deep connection with the landscape, both as physical experience and metaphorical motif, plays out through not only the objects she paints but in the atmosphere that permeates the paintings. Sitting somewhere between animate and inanimate, the otherworldliness of the suspended and weightless forms is heightened by manipulations of scale. We are not sure if we are in or above ground, looking through air or water.

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Claudia Carr – Unfamiliar Terrain
by Michael Petry

Magritte famously added the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) to an image clearly of a pipe, for his painting The Treachery of Images (1928/9). Claudia Carr is another artist interested in the way that images can be treacherous, how they can trick us into thinking that what we are viewing is something other than a work of art. Magritte aimed at helping the viewer understand that an image of a pipe is clearly not the same thing as an actual three dimensional pipe, one which you could stuff some tobacco into and set alight. His pipe was made of oil paint and canvas and while it looked like, or rather depicted a pipe, the image worked to trick the mind of the viewer. He warned the viewer not to believe in everything they could see with their own two eyes. 

Many years later in 1973 the conceptual artist Michael Craig Martin placed a glass of water on a glass shelf and called it An Oak Tree. The work also has an accompanying text in the form of questions and answers, where the artist argues that what we are seeing is an oak tree because he, as the artist, has made it into that. Again Carr knows something about this form of making too. She makes small pieces of bread into mountains or at least images of bread, for her medium is also oil on canvas. Her still life paintings are also simultaneously landscapes, it all rather depends on your understanding of scale, and her ability to trick the viewers eye into believing they are looking at something very large and also very small at the same exact time. This is not a piece of bread, it is a rock, or a mountain or a seascape, or maybe it is, a piece of bread.

Carr creates unfamiliar terrains that are hauntingly beautiful, they seem like they are dreamscapes, as if we have fallen asleep at the table after one too many glasses of red wine and too much cheese and bread. The smoky greys and off whites are almost a veil before our eyes, as if the shapes they are taking are not fixed, are mobile, are subject to change at any moment. In Drift, we see the round stains from wet glasses on the tablecloth, and discarded napkins, and small bits of crumbs – or are they craters from a blast and ruins of man made buildings, and rocks strewn on a battle field as the dust settles. With very few colours Carr evokes deep feelings in the viewer, her work is as unsettling as Magritte’s, she throws us off kilter and it is very exciting. In fact in this new series of work, Carr has restricted her palate to only three tubes of paint: black, white and ochre. Yet from this self imposed limit she conjures a myriad of tones. She has said that she wants the paintings to be in tension between ‘hot and cold’. Carr has also taken to starting all the images as white on white paintings. She says that for her, the ultimate painting would be one that was all, or only white, but at the same time evoked all the tension, and contained the depth of those with more colour. 

For me it is hard to imagine her works in the same formal ground as those of Robert Ryman whose white on white paintings ask what is a painting, however she too explores the formal language of creating a three dimensional view on a two dimensional surface. Composition holds her interest in a very British way; she says she is embarrassed by the objects in her works holding center stage (Brackish I) and feels they need to be shifted or pushed towards the edges of the canvass (Col de Venice), and that the ones that do hold the center (Brackish II) are almost emotionally difficult for her to look at. These formal concerns culminate in one of the show’s major works Like a Dog turning its Memories of Wilderness on the Kitchen Mat. Carr not only shifts the central object off to the right but works extremely hard to almost hide any use of the ochre so that it really does remind the viewer of Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black Number 1 (1871). Obviously not visually in terms of the image (his mother does not look like this odd rock formation, though her stillness and the grey pallor of her skin are rather similar) but Carr’s work, with its evocative title and staid imagery, is almost the flip side of a painterly coin. Whistler depicts a loved one, yet names the work in the language of painting, while Carr gives us the paint and then let’s our imagination run loose, like a dog in the wild. Each of these works, Whistler’s and Carr’s, are oddly charming.

Her titles often do a lot of the narrative work as in Outside-Inside, which depicts another sort of rock formation that could be any size, and exist on a kitchen table, or in the flow of a river. The same imagery can be seen in Ebb and flow, now attended by dark branches or are they bits of seaweed, are we looking into the water or beside it? The title sends us into our own reveries about unhappiness, fear, and dread, or is that just me? And what of the scratch in the black paint? Her surfaces generally are smooth, we do not see many brushstrokes, the paint is often very flat, almost scrubbed back to the underlying canvass so what can such a deliberate, violent mark that disrupts the image mean?

Her work instills uncertainty, in Where the Soul Fluttered a While the painting is flooded with colour compared to the other works, bright yellows and many more shades of what appear to be green (yet are actually tones of yellow) are eked out from the same limited palette of black, white and yellow ochre, as are the rich blacks. Again we could be looking into a river, or a fish tank or some forgotten memory, as if we had just raised a sleepy head from a table and a dream image made our conscious vision feel bleakly inadequate. What we see in her pictures is so much more than the objects and the colours in them, we see their totality as fictions, and we want them to be real, we want to eat that bread, to drink that wine, to smoke that pipe, and for water to be an oak. 

There seems to be a lifting mist in many of Carr’s new works, as if they are wet to the touch, as if the morning dew has yet to be burnt off by the passing sun with its immense heat. That is not to say her paintings are cool and dispassionate, true they are not slick conceptual tricks, they are not one-line jokes, they are not very London, but they are wonderfully confounding to behold.