Th©r¨se Oulton: Elsewhere

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Catalogue of works published to accompany Thérèse Oulton's most recent show 'Elsewhere', at Marlborough Fine Art, London

Transcript of Th©r¨se Oulton: Elsewhere

  • Thrse OultonElsewhere

  • Thrse OultonElsewhere

  • Front cover: Rock Face 2014 | This page: Quarry II 2011

  • Thrse OultonElsewhere

    Marlborough Fine Art

    6 Albemarle Street

    London W1S 4BY

    t: +44 (0) 20 7629 5161


    5 -27 September 2014

  • This is why disaster movies like I Am Legend or even novels like

    Cormac McCarthys The Road are so misleading or even comforting.

    Someone, however precariously, always survives, as well as the

    spectator or reader who is watching. How, then, to represent a world

    on the verge of extinction, or one which has extinction already

    written across its surface? How or where should you place the

    viewer of a vanishing world? How to paint the earth lovingly but

    without false solace, a world in which love might be impotent?

    Since her 2010 exhibition, Territory, Thrse Oulton has been quietly

    painting herself into the heart of these questions. Not for the first

    time, she places us in the realm of something which it is almost

    impossible to envisage. As with all Oultons work, the paintings of

    Elsewhere, this new exhibition, are disarmingly exquisite, but they do

    not pretend to redeem mans destructiveness. This dilemma requires

    new forms. It calls for what Rosa Luxemburg once described as `a

    new guest the human being, she was writing with reference to

    a devastating volcanic eruption in 1902 on the island of Martinique.1

    Oulton, we might say, is creating a new viewer, one who has to look

    in two self-contradictory, or self-annihilating directions at once. First

    she brings your face right up to the worlds surface, closer probably

    than you have ever experienced it before. But then, at the very

    moment you have ceded such intimacy, she manages to give you

    the sensation of a world hurtling to the point when there might no

    longer be anything, or anybody, there.

    'Suppose', Oulton has recently suggested 'we are witnessing a

    whole form of life collapsing, ceasing to exist as the determinant

    form of the human?'2 The paintings of Elsewhere demand a peculiar

    type of `inhuman proximity from artist and viewer alike. 'Does the

    space of belonging', she asks, 'survive at all?'3 According to scientific

    commentator, Elizabeth Kolbert, we have entered the epoch of

    the 'sixth extinction' the most devastating of the first five took

    place some 250 million years ago and almost emptied out the earth

    altogether (it is known as 'the mother of mass extinctions' or 'the

    great dying'.)4 This time around, Kolbert writes, the extinction is of

    our own making. The cataclysm, as she puts it, 'is us'.5

    From the beginning of her career, Oultons immovable commitment

    has been to paint as matter. Today, the world as matter what we

    have done to it, whether it can survive our depredations - is the

    burning issue. We could say that the world has finally caught up

    with her (although one suspects that this would be cold comfort).

    For Oulton this has always been a political question. Oulton has

    never fully belonged inside the landscape tradition which might

    seem her most obvious affiliation. As early as 1987, she explained

    her distance in terms of a control she was not interested in exerting.

    The problem was how landscape is 'appropriated both in the real

    world and in the painted landscape'.6 'I see it', she continued, 'as a

    kind of parallel finding a way of approaching the subject of paint.

    Treating it less brutally.'7

    She was way ahead of herself (and indeed most of us), although

    the continuities between the almost overwhelming lushness and

    density of the earlier work from Fools Gold of 1984 to Lines of

    Flight of 2003-2005 and the painstakingly detailed recording of

    a disintegrating world in the later paintings are stronger than one

    might at first think. For me, Oulton has always been a painter of

    unique, uncompromising, sensuousness. I have always seen her as

    digging her nails into the rock faces, into the underground hollows

    and sludge of the earth (what landscape mostly chooses not to

    represent). This is the process of her art, as she herself has described

    it. Oulton slides her paint across the canvas, one skin deep, no one

    brush mark on top of another: 'Its only touched once'.8 The key

    aesthetic demand seems to be that of preventing each trace and

    gesture from being wiped out by the next. To that extent, hers has

    always been an aesthetic of care, a means, as she once put it, of

    'letting the whole take care of itself.'9

    Today the stakes of such a commitment are higher. Once we

    recognise although many still deny the damage we have

    wrought on the earth, then everything starts to look different. The

    whole tradition of landscape painting, for instance, might seem

    like a defensive form of art: 'Might the petrified fixity of a painted

    landscape be an effect of anxiety', Oulton now asks, 'to freeze this

    The Art of Survival?

    What does it mean to imagine the world destroyed? The proposition makes no sense since, if the world has been destroyed, there would be no one left to imagine it.

  • narrative moment towards catastrophe?'10 To look at these paintings

    is to register the anxiety and beauty in the same place. Pleasure

    becomes its own warning-signal, as if today, against the more

    familiar norms of aesthetic appreciation, pleasure could only be

    anxious, a form of experience permanently menaced by itself.

    Seen in this light, there is something deceptive about the titles

    of these paintings Glacier, Quarry, Headland, Rock Face and

    Ice which might suggest the world is available to be classified

    and known. Oulton has always pitched herself against such

    over-arching presumption. In fact, all we are being given are the

    geographical feature the sites have no place names and could

    be anywhere (thus always potentially elsewhere). The overall effect

    of these paintings is one of vertigo and groundlessness, a world

    endlessly on the move. Such radical disorientation can be read

    as a type of political resistance in itself. As she put it in relation to

    Territory: 'matter constantly shifting about, unfit to be the landscape

    of political control'.11 Even as the meticulous differentiation of the

    painted surface is also a way of holding on to the swill and soil of

    the earth, insisting against all odds on its 'thereness' (her word).12

    The paintings of Territory showed the world as scarred. Images,

    reduced in scale from the vast earlier canvases, picked out the

    microscopic details of the ravaged earth with a precision we had not

    seen in Oultons paintings before. This was another split injunction

    we were being asked to focus minutely on something that was also

    vanishing before our eyes. The paintings of Elsewhere can be seen

    as her response to the anxiety of that predicament which it also

    intensifies. Something elemental has entered the paintings, which

    are mostly now larger in scale. Ice hits rock, glaciers seem to be

    moving across the canvas, as if nature were now miming the endless

    slide of Oultons paint. In Terminal Moraine, for example, as we look

    at the canvas, the paint seems to be coagulating, thickening, each

    stroke, each element struggling to hold its ground and stay in its

    own place. The ice, swathes of white almost but not quite broken

    by miniscule variations of tone, and the earth, thick brown marks

    coiling into their own depths, appear to be barely - holding out

    against each other. We see the same effect in Fissure and Glacier,

    where the ice seems to be packing itself against a darker mass that

    threatens at the far edge of the canvas. A concave shape at the

    lower right hand edge of Glacier, rents the surface, as though the

    ice, and the whole painting with it, is about to be sucked into a black

    hole. What we have done Oulton shows us like no other painter

    today is pitch the elements into an unending war.

    A terminal moraine, I then discover, is the snout of a glacier marking

    its maximum advance. The dense brown at the base of the canvas

    is in fact the debris accumulated by plucking and abrasion which is

    then deposited in a heap by the glacier at the point where it can go

    no further as if you could lay down your arms by dumping the shit

    of your enemy at his own feet. In Norway, there is a terminal moraine

    called 'Giants Wall' which, according to legend was built by giants

    to keep out invaders. Oulton is now placing herself on the other side

    of the sublime. Be awed by nature so long as you recognise that

    today the awe arises less from natures magnificence than from the

    human capacity to destroy it.

    Elsewhere, the title of this exhibition, has another meaning. It

    refers, more simply but no less disquietingly, to rootlessness as the

    condition of our times, to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

    as the ghostly figures in our landscape. Writing on stateless people

    in the 1950s, Hannah Arendt described how a person deprived

    of citizenship is reduced to what she called the 'dark background

    of mere difference' a realm in which 'man cannot change and

    cannot act and in which, therefo