Friday, February 16, 2007

White Light, White Heat: The Brilliant Art of Alison Watt

In the corner of Alison Watt’s studio in London’s National Gallery, above the battered chaise-longue on which she used to paint nudes in her Glasgow flat, there is a print. It is a reminder of a painting that Watt goes to look at every day: Saint Francis in Meditation, by Francisco de Zurbaran.
It is, she says, a perfect picture; compelling and extraordinary. Watt had Zurbaran in mind when she painted Still, a work which hangs in the Memorial Chapel of Old St Paul’s church, in Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh, and which had the unusual distinction of being blessed in an official service of consecration.
At first glance, it’s hard to connect the two. Zurbaran’s painting is a dark and brooding image. Francis sits, to the right of the frame, glowering from beneath a hood, his face almost entirely blackened by shadow. Watt’s picture - in the style of all her recent works – is a suggestive fold of fabric, and is mostly white.
Zurbaran, she says, had the idea that painting took him closer to God. “He thought that realism was a tool in the service of spirituality. Actually, when you’re sitting in front of that painting you feel that. It’s a really incredible portrait. You can barely see Saint Francis’s face. Your imagination has to fill in the bits you can’t see. I’m not quite sure whether Zurbaran has actually painted the eyes, but if I look at the painting for a long time I can see them, and I know he’s looking past me to some kind of other entity.
“But the thing that’s most compelling about it is the open mouth. That’s really strange. That elliptical shape is mirrored in other parts of the picture. In the hood, the shadow of the cowl, and those really deep eye sockets. All those points in the picture are like a way in. In the work I’ve been making down here, all the pictures have a way in to them. They all have these great gaping holes.”
Sure enough, at the far end of the studio, taking up most of the wall, is one of Watt’s works-in-progress. It shows a gigantic swirl of white fabric, twisting in the middle into a fold of nothing, a dark void. It is from the same family as Watt’s previous paintings of material, but while they suggested sex and sensuality, this is more like a blow-up of one of Georgia O’Keefe’s calla lilies. Viewed beneath artificial daylight in the gloom of a winter morning, it looks like death.
All of which is quite at odds with the personality of Watt in person. In conversation, she is effervescent, enthusiastic and funny. She is also intensely private, and tends to interpret every question – however personal – as if it is related to her work. This may be evasive, but it is also a fair reflection of the way she relates to the world.
She is obsessed (though she prefers “devoted”). When I first met her in the early 1990s, not long after her portrait of the Queen Mother brought her tabloid infamy, she talked about how her compulsive approach to her work had taken to the point of illness and exhaustion. By 2001, she had grown more meticulous in her habits. Now, she works harder still.
She is halfway through a residency at the National Gallery. In a year’s time, she will present an exhibition of works inspired by the collection. “When I’m in London I’m in the gallery seven days a week. I’m being allowed 24-hour access to things that I really love. There’s something quite irresponsible about that because it’s totally addictive. Paintings I’ve loved my entire life I can look at whenever I want for as long I want.
“The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been switched on. You’re so stimulated. The most exciting thing about it is it has completely changed the way I look at things. Normally when you look at a painting, you know you’ve got an hour, or if you’re lucky, two. It’s very different when you can stay with a picture for as long as you like.
“I thought I’d get to know the pictures better, but it’s also had the opposite effect. The paintings that I’m looking at upstairs are actually more mysterious and more unfathomable – they keep offering up things.”
Watt has always been surrounded by art. Her father, James, is a painter, and had a routine of working every day. “He would go away and immerse himself in his work and was not to be disturbed. No one questioned that in the family. He just did that.” Some children have memories of a trip to the zoo or a Spacehopper for Christmas. Watt recalls a trip to the National Gallery at the age of seven. Specifically, she remembers seeing Ingres’ portrait Madame Riviere, in which the subject is cocooned in a white shawl. Now, looking at this painting, she can note the sensuality of the fabric. Thinking back, she suggests its childhood appeal may have been related to an association with the comforting softness of fleeced cotton: “The delicate clothes worn closest to the body or the safety of being tucked tightly in bed each night”.
When Watt arrived in London last January, she made her usual pilgrimage to room 41 to see her favourite painting, and had a “cartoon moment” when she realised it wasn’t there. Madame Riviere was on loan to the Louvre. “It was as if someone had drawn startle lines around the space where it should be.”
At first, she thought she would study all of the 2000 or so paintings in the gallery, but she soon realised that was an impossible task. Instead, she took to wandering around to see which paintings shouted out. This process led her to an introspective examination of why some paintings appealed more than others. “Why do you choose to look at certain details within a painting? That’s got to be something about what’s in here” – she points to her forehead – “and in here” – and her heart. From this, she started to ponder the nature of memory, and how there are certain things that the mind cannot retain. Which brings her back to Zurbaran and Saint Francis.
“It’s just extraordinary. That’s a picture I’ve looked at every single day, and even though I’ve spent so much time with it I still see things in it that I haven’t seen before. And when I’m not with it, when I don’t look at it, I couldn’t reproduce it, and I know that painting better than any painting I’ve ever known.” She allows herself a sigh of exasperated excitement. “I just think that’s quite strange.”
Written down, such sentiments read like the product of a compulsive disorder. Perhaps they are, but when Watt talks like this, it’s hard not to inhale her zeal. You also begin to understand the trajectory of her work, which has gone from pale, playful portraits to these huge close-ups in which everything unnecessary has been excised. Colour has been drained, and replaced by fifty shades of white. All that remains is material.
“It’s like editing. I’ve been reading more and more poetry and less prose. There’s something about the way that poets approach the world. They’re doing this constant editing – good poetry seems to enter your brain like a hot needle. It just absolutely makes sense, but it’s a very pared-down version of the world. What I love about that is that you end up attaching yourself to it, and it’s all about your own experience. Like in the Zurbaran painting; because parts of that picture barely register physically it means that you have to add to it. Your imagination takes over the image, and it becomes part of you.
“What is really odd is that the longer you look at something, the less it’s like itself. You get further and further away.”
Watt’s latest exhibit, Dark Light, offers a glimpse into the hallucinatory side of her work. It is designed as “a painting you can walk into” and is the result of a 2004 Creative Scotland award. The exterior is, she says, like a Donald Judd sculpture – a flawless aluminium cube. The inner shell contains Watt’s work. She has no idea what people will think when they are inside it. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s the strangest experience I’ve had making it, and being in it. There was a point when I was in it on Friday where I had to get out. You know you sometimes get this feeling where you’re in the middle of nowhere? And you walk a bit faster, because you suddenly feel very alone? Or you start running?”
Dark Light, she says, is an attempt to give the viewer the sense that she has when she’s painting the work, up a scaffold, staring into the canvas to the point where perception warps and reality becomes a blur of abstract shapes. She doesn’t mention death or God, but it’s hard to ignore her growing fascination with religious imagery, and the intense pleasure she took from having Still accepted by the Episcopalian congregation of Old St Paul’s. She was raised Catholic, but hasn’t practised since the age of 12.
“I like a bit of idolatry. When I was really young I remember being taken to be shown amazing pieces of religious art. That’s one of the most brilliant things about the Catholic church, it commissioned some of the greatest art in the world. The Church of Scotland isn’t really up to Caravaggio and Zurbaran.”
On a recent visit to Rome, she went to see Caravaggio’s Conversion of St Paul in the Cerasi Chapel. “We’re seeing these things when we’re totally visually literate: we’ve seen films, we’ve read widely. But can you imagine seeing that if you hadn’t been anywhere? It would be the most exciting thing you’d ever seen. So much drama and terror. People must have cowered in front of these paintings because they’re so powerful.”
IN THE WINDOW in the corner of Watt’s studio, on a ledge above the litter of paint tubes, close to her palette, there is a little shrine of photographs. Some of them are postcards from the National Gallery collection, and next to them are Watt’s own abstracted photographs of folds of fabric – little studies for larger paintings. There are a couple of family photos too. There is one of her mum, and another of her dad, both looking dreamy and young. There is also a snapshot of Watt, aged seven, on that fateful visit to London. In this Kodak moment she is wearing red striped flares and has a sunny flash of yellow hair. Her face is not visible. She is staring away from the camera, towards the Gallery.
Dark Light, Ingleby Gallery, 6 Carlton Terrace, Edinburgh, from 9 February to 5 April

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