"This is the silence of astounded souls," wrote Sylvia Plath in "Crossing the Water". She may well have been talking of suicide, for Plath, more than any other poet, knew about the landscape of despair. She would, I think, have appreciated Rachel Howard's new paintings, have felt that they capture something of the psychological state and the lonely tragic fact of suicide.
A graduate of Goldsmith's College, and Damien Hirst's one-time assistant, Howard might be expected to take a fashionably ironic position. But, raised as she was in a Quaker household, art for her is a serious business, something she is committed to "for the long term".
Howard is not afraid of the big subject; art that pulls at the guts rather than being clever and self-referential, too afraid to say boo in case it finds itself in the realm of the real rather than of the ersatz.
A series of small paintings on the ground floor of this, her first exhibition, How to Disappear Completely, sets the theme. A pair of scissors, a potential instrument of self-harm, is set next to a painting of a small black dog, a recurring image that speaks of vulnerability and neglect, melancholia and depression.
Ambiguous and disturbing in their quiet beauty, these small works are hung alongside the black silhouette of Halfway House, which, with its high pitched roof and blank faÃ§ade, suggests not only the dosshouse of strained circumstances but the emotional limbo experienced by those in a suicidal state.
Howard trawls newspapers and forensic sites on the internet to find her subject matter. She came to the subject through the suicide of a friend, which affected her deeply. Suicide is, she considers, one of the last taboos. A trussed figure hangs from a rope; a faceless boy looks blankly out at the viewer, while the body of a woman lying across an iron bedstead recalls the dark psychosexual claustrophobia of Walter Sickert. All are faceless because there is nothing to celebrate about loss and suffering, displacement and pain. These are images of the ultimate human crisis. For, unlike Beckett's dictum that we all fail but tomorrow we will attempt to fail again better, here all hope has finally been extinguished.
Intrinsic to Howard's work is a tension between process and subject. She uses household paint, which is poured and pulled by gravity to create shiny lacquered surfaces of great finesse, on to which her figures are painted with a loaded brush. These are executed very quickly in black paint, as if doing a watercolour in order to meld, as she puts it, the tragic beauty of Zola's Nana with Capote's In Cold Blood.
The results are powerful and troubling, as if our worst nightmares had been dredged from some murky subterranean place. Those she has conjured are the discarded, the forgotten and the lost for whom she has created a poignant requiem.
On the top floor of the gallery, her preliminary line drawings suggest the edgy pathos of Egon Schiele. There are also five important large-format abstract works - though she does not distinguish between abstraction and figuration; for her, it is all simply painting. Colour is built in layers and veils of paint, and the mood is transcendental. Unlike other painters of her generation, she not afraid to acknowledge her debt to the past - to Mondrian, Rothko and Barnett Newman - though the signature of the poured lacquered surfaces is her own. Light seeps through grids to suggest entrapment, or the alienation of urban spaces where the lit windows of high-rise buildings bleed on to deserted night streets.
Howard is a perfectionist and admits to many failures. The creation of these ambitious canvases is a psychological and physical battle, which demonstrates that there is still a role for emotionally articulate art that has something important to say about the poignancy and tragedy of the human condition.
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