While British painter, Rachel Howard employs oil paint, since 1995 she has primarily used household paint, setting her apart from the likes of Rothko and Barnett Newman. Although, her work might be seen as an attempt at mastering abstraction (or conveying form) through a downpour of paint that sometimes fades out before reaching the bottom of the canvas, I prefer to see her work as a conceptual thematisation of the limits of painting as medium to convey the idea of duration. From this point of view, the experience of viewing these paintings happens in a sort of mental loop which beginning and end are defined by the acknowledgement of the failure of painting to truly set itself in motion. By seeing the pigments pour down, one sees the interruption of a process that, from a strictly mechanical point of view, disappoints the eye.
On the other hand, Howard’s paintings are built architecturally. The terms she uses are those of the builder: construction, reconstruction, building, layering and assembling. Gravity is her brush. Layers of paint accrue built by dripped pathways of paint. Although in her previous series: ’Suicide’, ‘Guilt’ and ‘Via Dolorosa’, she flirts with figuration by abstracting it, in her new show at Blain Southern she liberates the pigments from the need to represent a theme. In this new series of paintings, meaning is given through verbal utterance with words like ‘Insomnia’ or ‘Spit and Whisper’ while visually the works function by making the eye find meaning in the movement of paint but also in the relationship between certain accidents and corrugations that somewhere in the viewer’s retina could resemble a landscape or a flooded land.
From this point of view, it is impossible to floods that are currently taking place in the South West of England to these images of frozen fluidity. It is in the disintegrating quality of these images that the trace of the artist hand disappears only to re-emerge by evidencing a different type of manoeuvrability. In other words, the artist constructs identity (and we recognise a painting by Howard as made by Howard) by gently shifting the position of the canvas/board to allow the pigments to move around instead of actively intervening with her brush in the traditional way.
The titles are wisely put. ’Insomnia’ (2013) is a perfect one for a painting that problematises unsettled time. In Sea of Trees (2013) a fluid dialogue exists between the surface area and the work’s depth of field – a push and pull relationship connecting the two. Decisive black lines fade into hazy rivulets and merge with a cloudy surround, indicating both a distance that slowly recedes and a graduated Xerox-like disappearance upon the work’s top layer. Similarly, Bridge (2013) sees the barely-depicted structural arches of a bridge dissolving into an atmospheric misty fog, which simultaneously seems to occupy the foreground. I really like this artist and it is probably the first good show at Blain Southern in a long time. Good for them!