Phoebe Unwin @ Wilkinson

Contemporary and Old Art Reviews

Phoebe Unwin @ Wilkinson

Postby CAP » Mon Sep 16, 2013 12:44 pm

Phoebe Unwin: The Presence of People and Shapes @ Wilkinson

5 Sep - 13 Oct 2013

This is a quiet but effective show, worth seeing. Works as usual are well spaced around the gallery, perhaps inevitable given the floor space. But Unwin’s work relies on variety in a particular way and obviously the closer the works the more wearing variation can become. So it’s a good match, in that way. Surprisingly, the show has so far gone un-reviewed, hence old plod steps into the breach here.

Her last show (at Wilkinson) attracted a modest amount of web attention, on The Guardian, with interviews on Saatchi and Articulated Artists and circulated through the usual network of (mainly fem) blogs. For what it’s worth, Sharma’s interview on Articulated Artists is the earlier, more incisive and better illustrated, Bushell’s follow-up on Saatchi is okay, in a sucky, corporate and opportunistic kind of way, but to each, their own I suppose. I also tried to write about her then, but ran out of enthusiasm. In 2011 she was also included in The British Art Show 7, so a certain momentum and promise has been established. 2013’s instalment, ‘The Presence of People and Shapes’ delivers, but for some reason no-one’s at home right now. Perhaps Garageland Magazine is just a bit slow in nudging someone like Annabel Dover into a trilling report; perhaps Unwin’s allotted fifteen minutes of fame has sadly expired. Then again, critics are entitled to change their minds and no one gets a review every show. Ah careers, eh? Luckily that has almost nothing to do with meaning and merit in the work.

Unwin’s paintings deal in semi-abstraction or bold stylisation, an area that gains currency where painters look beyond photographic sources, tire of more literal genres. Congenial company might include Amy Sillman, Elizabeth Neel, Merlin James, Magnus Plessen or Neil Tait, amongst others. It’s a broad church but without the numbers to strictly qualify as a trend. Unwin’s subjects or themes are notably commonplace, tending to the domestic or intimate. Interiors, mirrors, meals and occasionally travel recur. Figures remain anonymous, stereotypical, formalised personally and pictorially. Yet the pictures are hardly sedate or subdued. Her treatment features delicate and adroit layers, surprising contrasts in technique and materials, from sprayed stencils to pastel and charcoal outlines, from impasto oil to lush acrylic, fluorescent or metallic enamel, occasionally found or readymade supports. The aim is to strike a balance between a style stretched through diverse technique and a subject apprehended on unusual terms. As noted, variety is paramount, tricky to sustain. This is to put the matter very dryly though and it’s above all a recipe for fun. Much of the appeal lies in its freewheeling abandon. When it fails of course it can really look a mess, where things just don’t cohere. But it necessarily involves second guesses and rethinks, blind stabs and lucky hunches, a lightness of touch and eye for structure. Composition typically reduces an object to a primitive orthogonal or oblique projection, stressing frontality or an arbitrary angle to receding planes. Setting or grounds tend to resolve into a field or even pattern of elements, heightening a decorative aspect, confirming a deliberately shallow space.

Most writing on Unwin follows her statements on process and tends to dwell on formal values and to talk only generally of the feelings expressed. This seems a bit coy. Yes, the variety or versatility to form is fun, but what is it that it makes fun of, exactly? What, more precisely, are the feelings expressed? This is a good point at which to delve a little deeper. For all the high jinks, pictorial flatness to works here steadily acquires a certain expressive constraint, limiting involvement, encouraging adventure within safe confines. The pictures are then literally and metaphorically shallow. This is not a criticism but rather valid expressive content. People deal with their problems this way, quite apart from pictures. They sometimes trivialise their options, become frivolous about unwelcome or unfamiliar consequences. It’s a way of coping. Unwin’s work sometimes has the feel of a playground, is teasing and obtuse, capricious and impulsive. But the games with style can also suggest tacit omissions or evasions. Figures are blurred or rendered headless, elsewhere no more than outlines, walls and grids loom not so much as impediment, but protection, a way of distancing the world, disguising involvement. Domestic settings only bring the matter home, in every sense. The work is then about a more intimate engagement. The bathrooms, meals, drinking straws and mirrors all start to zero in on a person reluctant to go too far, digest too much, get lost in conformity. For some, identity is a slender issue. Here, the fun starts to fade a little, become a little more dysfunctional. The score may be close to nil by mirth.

Significantly, several works in the show feature curtains, another Hockney-esque motif (others have noted her brief debt to early Hockney, not just in shower fittings or faux naïf drawing but the campy or theatrical frontality). But curtains here, tellingly, are not theatrical but household. They filter a window, suggest concealment, perhaps propriety. These are amongst the largest and most successful works in the show and it’s easy to see how the theme might appeal to the artist. Notably, these works are also amongst the most sustained or least varied in technique. A spray stencil haphazardly traces something like a pixelated herringbone pattern down lengths of the canvas, a sprayed drop shadow raises the curtains from their window or wall, but a drop shadow is all that distinguishes curtain from window or wall. The grisaille palette here further stylises the picture, but also brings a note of sobriety. We glimpse a more experienced, more parsimonious artist. Smaller works like the wittily titled Landscape Watch (2013) and The Same Person (2013) recover the élan of earlier work and some, such as Auditorium (20130, spread their resources too thinly. But in general the artist builds impressively upon her themes, demonstrates a calmer, more thorough command of technique. It’s a strong show, but as yet appears to be only for the dedicated.
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