INSIGHT: WEEK 8, AIMÉE PARROTT
Viewing Room, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, UK, 5–11 August 2020
Reviewed For The Journal of Contemporary Painting by Sarah Kate Wilson, University of the Arts London.
‘The museum of the future will be mechanized: the visitors will sit still in little viewing boxes and the canvases will appear before them on a kind of vertical escalator. In this way [the curator wrote], in one hour and a half, a thousand visitors will be able to see a thousand paintings without leaving their seats. ’
John Berger recounted this statement, made by an unnamed French curator in his 1966 essay, ‘The historical function of the museum’. Now, here we are, experiencing the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020. We do not sit in little viewing boxes, we hold them. The predicted vertical escalator is instead a roaming finger; endlessly, obsessively, often mindlessly twitching upon a glassy surface. Art galleries across the globe are closed; they are now located in a holding pen, in virtual space. Physical encounters have been replaced with online viewing rooms. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, and Extended Reality apps and devices are being employed to make the digital mediated experience of art, appear ‘real’. Given the circumstances, it feels appropriate to review an online presentation of paintings.
In this cultural milieu, I had myriad virtual exhibitions to choose from. However, my fingertips kept stroking the glowing portal in my palm in search of work by Aimée Parrott. During lockdown, she has been particularly productive in making and ‘gramming’ work. As serendipity would have it, Pippy Houldsworth Gallery announced a solo presentation of new works via Insight, the gallery’s online viewing room. Here in this digital space, float eight identically sized, small paintings made on calico, framed in sapele wood.
When first meeting these paintings online, I questioned my vision. Had I been crying, was there an eyelash in my eye, were my glasses smudged? I rubbed, cleaned and blinked again, and willed the works to appear. Slowly, they came into a fuzzy focus. Coaxing these paintings to reveal themselves, reminded me of the magical experience of developing a print in a photography dark room. Develop, Stop, Fix. Viewed both #irl and online, these works produce a fascinating optical confusion, created through the artist’s version of mono-printing, one that ironically seems to function, plurally.
Parrott was introduced to mono-printing almost a decade ago, whilst studying at the Royal Academy Schools, London. An inked-up monotype remains unfixed up until the copper plate is put through the press. This sustained period of malleability is appealing to her. Furthermore, it is not necessarily the initial print that excites her, she is often more interested in a plate that has just been squeezed through the press. As the rollers impregnate the un-primed calico with ink, the plate is simultaneously stripped of ink, but not completely. A trace remains.
She retrieves the plate from the press and sets about re-inking and re-painting it – so as to re-print it. Working in this way sees her work with, rather than obliterate the ghostly, residual image left on the plate. She refers to this as a ‘hand-me-down’1 process; therefore the image left on the plate can be thought of as an ‘inherited’ image. The newly ‘refreshed’ monotype can now be either printed back onto an earlier print or onto new pieces of calico. As a result, offspring images can be seen layered on-top of each other or appear in other paintings. These familial echo’s bind her bodies of works, together. In this particular body of work the same leaf/pursed lips/shell motif appears in Thunderstone, Hull and Mouth (all 2020).
Figure 1: Mouth, 2020. Ink on calico, acrylic, thread, sapele and ply frame. 32 × 42 cm, 12 5/8 × 16 1/2 in.
Figure 2: Thunderstone, 2020. Ink on calico, acrylic, wool, thread, sapele and ply frame. 32 × 42 cm, 12 5/8 × 16 1/2 in.
Figure 3: Loam, 2020. Ink on calico, acrylic, yarn, thread, sapele and ply frame. 32 × 42 cm, 12 5/8 × 16 1/2 in.
When the plate is printed back onto earlier prints, the plate or weave of the calico might slightly move position, à la Warhol. This misalignment creates drop shadows, can bring about double-vision, and as a result, give the forms weight. This can be seen overtly in the work Loam (2020). Here you can observe a slight shift between the brown ink marks originally laid down, and the re-printed second layer of brown marks. This subtle offsetting gives the impression that the second layers of marks are levitating above the original. The visual noise of the printed ‘offsprings’ in Loam are similar to the light trails we see in long exposure night photography.
These paintings (unlike the majority of painting circulating digitally) resist becoming, as John Kelsey in his text ‘The sext life of painting’ put it, ‘virulently retinal’ (Kelsey 2015: 268) precisely because, they are difficult to immediately see. The imagery contained within them is similarly enig- matic. Built up in printed and painted sedimentary layers, these works are infused with images of knots, glaciers, wounds, mouths, stars, volcanoes, water, lava, larva, lichen, soil, rain, legs, bones, moons, horizon lines, hair, tongues, excrement, stones, blood, crystals, walls, trinkets, tendrils, eyes and veins.
The vital energy that her works harbour is palpable. Titles, Torrent, Thunderstone, Matrix, Spring, Hull, Mouth, Incantation and Loam, signal that something is about to happen. Storms are brewing, the ground is being excavated, things are growing, warnings are being whispered, spells are being cast, the soil is pulsating. The slim wooden frame that houses Matrix (2020) can barely contain it.
Figure 4: Matrix, 2020. Ink on calico, acrylic, polymer clay, pins, thread, sapele and ply frame. 42 × 32cm, 16 1/2 × 12 5/8 in.
The work depicts an eruption so volatile it kicks up a smoke bomb, that snakes itself into a frenzied figure of eight that threatens to drag everything in its path. Upon closer inspection, which means using my fingers, zooming into the digital image, rather than stepping closer to the work – I notice three teardrop-shaped appendages. They have been forcibly tacked to the surface of the painting. Perhaps these curious amulets, are ex-votos, sacrificially hammered into the work to appease the gods, as a way of keeping the unfolding scene of disaster at bay.
We understand these objects to be paintings. We could just as easily understand them as tea leaf readings, Rorschach tests or scans of archaeological pits undergoing excavation. With the latter in mind, I remembered Dave Hickey’s writing on Pia Fries’ paintings made in the mid-noughties. Hickey recalled something a friend had said:
The earth does not care if it is ruined...depopulated...it will still be the earth and it will go around the sun
Following this memory, Hickey writes,
If alien aesthetes arrive someday on this ruined and depopulated earth, if they decide to wander around, like tourists at Machu Pichu, and, if they are free of memory and expectations, they will probably find the wreckage of this world and what we did to it enchanting, full of terrible beauty and brutal grandeur, and if, amid the rubble, they should come across a painting by Pia Fries, they will most certainly take it home as an unsentimental memento of the ruined planet..
Who would blame them? Fries’ paintings are bloody gorgeous, but they are not soulful. They appear machine-made, hyper-saturated, glossy and as a result, sterile. Perhaps too similar, to the objects found on the planet the aliens are day-tripping from, which would explain the nonchalant encounter. Hickey predicts they might have. Parrott’s works have soul. Printed, painted, stitched, embroidered, weathered, they reinforce Meyer Schapiro’s statement made in 1957 that
‘[p]aintings [...] are the last handmade, personal objects within our culture’ (Schapiro 1957: n.pag.).
I imagine, if aliens unearth one of her paintings, their reaction would be akin to our responses to the discoveries of; the cave paintings of Lascaux, a new species of amphibian, or the fact that within a ‘single teaspoon of soil there exists a microscopic universe of complex interdependent lifeforms, invisible to the human eye’ (Parrott 2019:). Each of these revelations has been mind-blowing! Parrott’s paintings would be gathered up, studied, discussed, treasured, because they do not depict our world, rather they seem to actually contain it and the lives we have lived upon it. Therefore, these paintings ought to be thought of as distilled records of our lived world, an exquisite one, full of animals, plants, minerals and magic.
Journal of Contemporary Painting, 2021.
Sarah Kate Wilson is senior lecturer, teaching BA painting at Camberwell College of Arts, UAL. She received her MFA in painting at the Slade, UCL in 2010 and her Ph.D. from University of Leeds in 2017. Her thesis is titled: ‘Durational Painting; gifting, grafting, hosting, collaborating’. Wilson has had solo exhibitions at Baltic 39, Newcastle, Armory Center for the Arts, California and Centre for Audio Visual Experimentation, Leeds. She has staged painting performances at the Royal Academy, London, Palais de Tokyo, Paris and the Museum of London. She curated Painting in Time, which included artists Yoko Ono, Polly Apfelbaum, Natasha Kidd and Claire Ashley and toured from Tetley, Leeds to SAIC, Chicago. In 2019 as part of the international Bauhaus Centenary Celebrations she undertook a research residency at Bauhaus, Dessau. Following this, she worked with colleagues
and students from Camberwell to stage performances within the new Bauhaus Museum, Dessau, Germany.
Berger, J. (1966),‘The historical function of the museum’, in The Moment of Cubism, and Other Essays, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 35–39.
Hickey, D. (2006), Pia Fries, Schwarzwild, exhibition catalogue, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, 1–30 June, p. 5.
Kelsey, J. (2015), ‘The sext life of painting’, in A. Hochdörfer, D. Joselit and M. Ammer (eds), Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age, Munich: Museum Brandhorst, Bayerische Staatgemäldesammlungen, pp. 268–70.
Parrott, A. (2019), All That the Rain Promises and More..., exhibition catalogue, Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh, 25 July–14 September, pp. 1–63.
Schapiro, M. (1957), ‘The liberating quality of avant-garde art’, Art News, 56:4 (Summer 1957), pp. 36–42.