A Coruscating Eye
Eleanor Moreton’s paintings are highly crafted objects that exist in the real world and yet they also convey illusions of fictional time and space. Although narrative could be said to be her subject matter, there are deliberate strategies embedded in the work to disrupt, confound and resist easy meaning. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Absent Friends, her most recent body of work, in which the representations of various individual women — mainly writers and musicians from the 20th century – provide a discourse on identity and existence in lives that have slipped outside the mainstream.
Painted from photographs onto panels in which the wood grain is exposed, some of these female faces are easily recognisable, others less so. Moreton is less interested in the traditional concerns of portraiture: ‘likeness’ gives way to an unsentimental, psychological approach to character that avoids clichés of standard prettiness or beauty – none of these women are smiling, several are middle-aged – they do not make themselves sexy and available to the viewer. There is an otherness at work here – these subjects are feminist, queer and black, their differences re-asserted by the various ways in which the paintings are made.
Unlike the airbrushed celebrities of today, these women appear unvarnished and without artifice: Patricia’s coruscating eye shoots out from under a craggy brow, her ring cuts tight into her claw hand; this is a woman who took pet snails on aeroplane under her coat and underwent psychoanalysis to try to rid herself of her lesbian proclivities. In these depictions of strong-willed women – Rebecca, Nina, Patricia etc – there’s a warmth that’s revealed in the use of their first name, a clue to their identity that, like American crime writer Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, the viewer is left to solve.
A calm stillness comes through the assured brushstrokes in these portraits that goes beyond the cognitive to connect us directly with the absent face. It seems that Moreton is playing with absence/presence here in the Derridian sense in that we feel the presence of these absent friends through the absence of their presence – the trace; the not being there. Perhaps the notion of legacy becomes important here too – that once exited from life, the artistic legacy of many of these women has slowly and patiently built up in their wake, ensuring that their lives have a continual present. Moreton has said that she feels her work is informed by psychoanalysis, and a childhood sense of repression seems to link to the idea of trace/legacy – this way of connecting with someone in their absence, however obliquely.1
In other work we are on more familiar Moreton territory: the imaginary lost past. This time around there are less Eminent Victorians and the Austro- Hungarian Empire has taken a back seat. Instead, there are stories aplenty from folklore and myth: stories that focus less on the story and more on the alternative consequences of them. In her concern with the ‘what if’, Moreton introduces new possibilities into a trope that since the 1970s and Angela Carter’s classic collection of fairy tales The Bloody Chamber has been the subject of much feminist revision.
There is a trio of works here based on Pre- Raphaelite paintings: Mary-Anne Waiting, The Gift of Shit and April Luv. These arose from Moreton’s earlier experimentation with paintings based on stories and myths such as John William Waterhouse’s narrative depiction of the Arthurian legend, The Lady of Shalott. Moreton has taken aspects of the Victorian slippery approach to morality – the murky mixture of repression and regulation that bubbles under the Pre-Raphaelite depictions of its idealised, forever-in-wait female protagonists – and turned it on its head.
There’s a ludicrous quality to the Pre-Raphaelites; these are paintings that make me laugh...I wanted to make composite paintings that took elements
from different sources rather than using a single photographic image. I felt this kind of intervention might give me more scope with the narrative possibilities as I’m interested in how in one single image we might deal with the passage of time and space.2
In John Everett Millais’s Mariana (1851), the claustrophobic cell, with its stained glass window, curling tapestry motifs and leaves blown in from the garden, closes in on the solitary, stretching figure of Mariana, in endless wait for an absent fiancé. In Mary-Anne Waiting Moreton’s Mariana appears to have shaken off those creeping leaves and with them the lower half of her dress – as she stands squarely and proudly, bottom exposed, hair released from its neat coil. Her act – more willful than wanton – seems more about a desire to spoil the party rather than allow herself to become the object of anyone’s desire.
According to a paper by Sara Ahmed addressing ‘problem’ characters in 19th century novels, the acquisition of an independent female will often leads innarrativetermstothechargeofwillfulness.3 In refusing to align herself with the moral and general will, we can see that Mariana has become what Ahmed hilariously describes as a ‘Feminist Killjoy’.4 In these richly textured, patchwork paintings that parody the Pre- Raphaelite propensity for claustrophobic detail and heightened emotion, Moreton uses lurid and almost fluorescent colour to puncture the illusion and create an alternative sense of space. There is a cartoon-like approach to character: April Luv for example is a vision in lurid green whose intense feelings of love are manifested in the work as pink scissor-like blades that have cut her etiolated frame to ribbons. Mariana’s bare bottom touches on issues of repression and fetishism: the body becomes undone, the fabric dissolves in a burst of acid colour and light, which serves to conceal, defer, and eroticize meaning. There’s fun and games here as the viewer is left to wade through the non-literal, approach to storytelling with its discombobulated trains of desire and attendant scatological humour.
Despite Moreton’s protestations that the ideas are first and foremost, there is a sense that she is painter through and through. Just look at all those
chilling blues – cerulean, phthalo, ultramarine – in The Castle and how they conspire beautifully against the alarming touches of red (the reddish brown of the mane of hair and the red and brown crusted blobs stuck in a Chris Ofili ‘Gift of Shit’ type gesture on top of Bluebeard’s head). The paint is mainly used thinly, but in parts there is a little more body, and although there are discernible forms,
her fast and loose brushwork means they remain ambiguous and free-floating. In this fractured exploration of image and memory, Moreton has ripped some elemental patterns and shapes out of the Modernist lexicon and subjected them to her own deft twist.
Nowadays painting has expanded and its limits and boundaries have collapsed. Referred to by Rosalind Krauss as the ‘post-medium condition’, this makes the distinction between abstract and figurative painting seem far less important.5 Moreton admires other painters such as Robert Welch and David Webb whose work is poised somewhere between the two supposed poles and shares many of the same features: the indistinct forms, the washes and drips, the stains and spills as well as a concern with ideas drawn from history and a strategy of appropriation. I would argue however that Moreton’s work with its particularly powerful sense of touch leaves a highly personalized trace – in Isabelle Graw’s terms it is this specific indexicality attached to painting that suggests ‘a strong bond between the product and the (absent) person of its maker’ and furthermore makes us experience these paintings as ‘being intriguing in a way that only an intriguing person could be’.6
1 In a lecture to students at Hull School of Art and Design in October 2013 (You Tube), Moreton said that she feels her work is informed by psychoanalysis and that she is interested in things unsaid/ repressed.
2 Quote is from a conversation with the artist, February 2014
3 Sara Ahmed, ‘Willful Parts: Problem Characters or the Problem of Character’, New Literary History, 42, (Spring 2011) pp.231-253.
4 Sara Ahmed, ‘Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)’, Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert: The Scholar and Feminist Online 8, no. 2, (Summer 2010) pp.1-8.
5 Rosalind E. Krauss, Perpetual Inventory, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013
6 Isabelle Graw, ‘The Value of Painting: Notes on Unspecificity, Indexicality, and Highly Valuable Quasi- Persons’, Graw, Birnbaum & Hirsch eds. in Thinking through Painting – Reflexivity and Agency beyond the Canvas, Frankfurt am Main: Sternberg Press, 2013
Nicky Hodge is an artist interested in ideas around feminism, language, the absurd, the irrational and how the private might
be imagined in the public domain. Her paintings were included in Outdoors (2006), Sense and Nonsense (2003) and Bittersweet (2001) at Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art, where she had a solo exhibition in 2001. In 2012
her video was selected for Deptford X. Currently studying for an MFA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, she works part-time for the Government Art Collection as a Curator of Information and Research.