Rebecca Wallis: Void of Meaning

3 December 2021 - 30 January 2022

This extraodinary powerful show is brought to life in a compelling essay by Dr Ed Hanfling.

Rebecca Wallis, and how to keep making new paintings

 

The art of Rebecca Wallis has three defining qualities.  One is growth, which comes from the artist repeatedly effecting risky changes, reaching for new levels of experience.  Another (related) is what could be called aesthetic difficulty, which comes from a refusal to simply make nice pictures.  The third (driving the other two) is purpose: what the paintings look like is consistent with what Wallis has to say, and what she has to say comes from life.  The paintings change, take form and wrap themselves round the artist's felt responses and experiences, and, as a result, carry conviction as aesthetic statements. 

 

Historically (or at least since Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century), it has been customary to associate the term "aesthetic" with a primarily visual experience and a certain kind of beauty.  But we need a fuller sense of what counts as aesthetic if we are to understand Wallis's paintings as more than merely pictures to look at.  Consider: "Are they beautiful?"  Well, yes and no.  There are some lovely moments, when the materials did things they might not have under different circumstances.  And there are some nasty, oozy, painful, jarring, turgid, cacky and otherwise unprepossessing bits, which, though they are there - seemingly brazen and unrepentant - to be seen, bring into play other senses and levels of experience (the "nice" bits do too, though less obviously because they are easier to look at). 

 

Wallis's paintings are likely to get you in the gut, and other parts of the anatomy.  They are far from being decorative (not that there is anything wrong with decoration).  They seem, further, to not be entirely contained, to spill, to break down (the painted silk ripped away from the support, for example), and, indeed, to break down the separation between us and them and the artist.  Whereas aesthetic experience, in the Kantian sense, means attending, with acute sensitivity, to the mental image that an object presents to us, the representation, keeping it safely at a distance, Wallis asks us to confront the object itself - exposed, wrought, flayed, stressed, dismembered - and we cannot control it, nor enjoy the luxury of observing and consuming from a detached vantage point. 

 

Back in 1943, the American Abstract Expressionist Adolf Gottlieb said:  "In times of violence, personal predilections for niceties of color and form seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the immediate presence of terror and fear, a recognition and acceptance of the brutality of the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life."  That was certainly a different place and time, and violence, terror and insecurity were products of a then ongoing world war.  But painters such as Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, were adamant that abstract art (then still something that required justification) was an inevitable consequence of the imperative to express something that could not easily be said or depicted - that came from human experiences that went deeper than the visual or the cerebral.  Actually, the history of abstract art is rooted in such an impulse - in the question of how to represent that which is beyond representation - rather than just reducing the amount of visual information available to be seen (though that was part of the equation).

 

A painter needs something to paint.  It is not necessarily subject matter, or something to be seen, and it might not be the reason why they paint (that could be as simple as having a proclivity for it, or liking it more than anything else, or doing it for its own sake or to maintain the tradition or discipline).  But to keep painting, and to keep painting differently demands something else that is real, felt and vital, for painting to feed off, and to be sustained and driven on by.  In her latest body of work, Wallis responds to motherhood, and the changing and complex relationships to her children, the loss of self that nurturing others requires.  She is open to new perspectives on life that this experience yields.  And in her painting she opens up new perspectives, new forms, commensurate with this, and that emerge from a process of give and take with the materials - a complex and (I suspect) anxious matter of, as it were, getting inside the painting as an object and (effectively) as a body.  Subject matter, for Wallis, is not just whatever she likes.  She has to move the work on as her larger reality dictates.  As painter, it is no doubt important to like what you do, but it is not enough to know what you like.  Wallis makes new paintings to confront the unknown.

 

Edward Hanfling, December 2021