When I stand in front of Gabriella Boyd’s paintings, I am temporarily displaced from my own word bank. Not because of the cliché that I’m left speechless, but because of a certain denseness the works draw you into.
So here I am now, trying to sink down and access water at the depths of a well that has instead filled up with rich matter.
This is an exhibition of oil on canvas works all made in 2020. The year of completion provides its own subtext, that other years just wouldn’t.
The works have largely one-word titles, and have the ability to describe something large and boundaryless: ‘Stream’, ‘Flood’, ‘Bad Decisions’, ‘Constellation‘; and in other instances specific anatomical objects of focus – ‘Retina’; ‘Tract’, ‘Spit’. The decision to title in this way leaves the viewer with a tight entry point, that either hones into a specific event or zooms out to a dynamic that goes beyond the capacities of the frame.
The show presents a series, and works clearly operate in the same world. Reoccurring concerns between canvases, and shifts in viewpoint talk about a sense of recalibration. The works appear to need each other to be read, rather than to need me as suggested in Martha Barratt’s exhibition text. ‘For Days’ as the show is titled, brings attention to a way of measuring time that is short term. We may measure in such short increments when there is an intensity to events, that make days feel like lifetimes - something I associate with a period in lockdown.
Internal organs are made visible in the works, hanging on by crude veins that trail about. Explicitly referencing hospitals, opticians and bedrooms, appears to be a decision around making visible the workings of the body, and the subtle interactions that happen in private space, concerning our social and biological functioning.
Tables, windows and beds also reoccur as motifs. Boyd speaks of tables as a device, that hold other elements in relation: “a single plane can anchor a scene.” (1) In Sara Ahmed’s ‘Queer Phenomenology’, the table is a point of focus for speaking about the act of orientation. Ahmed finds the importance of exploring the table as a place of measurement from which philosophy iswritten, after Husserl’s writings (2), but also as an object of disappearance when attention is pointed towards it. (3)
In the context of Covid-19, beds take on a new familiarity; become sites of work. Beds are perhaps the new table from which we orient. Beds at times take sole focus for Boyd, as in ‘Tract’ where the starkness of a mustard yellow rectangle seems to ask to be orientated around; within the series ‘Blessing (ii, iii, iv)’ a reoccurring figure is seen lying there, time and time again.
Boyd’s 2015 commission to illustrate Sigmund Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ may give some background context to this focus on the bed, but also to a certain attention on the interior. ‘Soft Centre’ suggests an intimacy with the unconscious mind that dresses figures in unplaceable folkloric costume, whilst ‘Set’ coaxes us from an interior, out to a view of another window.
In many works, the pictorial plane asserts itself, and the image is exposed as a collection of separately composed parts, speaking to elements of formalism. A dry brush used with thin layers of oil are seemingly applied so that the assemblage hovers like an apparition on the surface. Simultaneously, the figurative qualities of the works move the eye beyond materiality into more expansive and illusive content.
I see Boyd’s show on the closing day, where a performance reading by Amelia Barratt takes place. Barratt performs under red lights in a chequered dressing gown in front of ‘Flood’, a work dominated by a large window frame, and droopy open book, within in a sea of red. The text reads in part as a narrative of queer desire, and simultaneously as a riddle full of double-meanings; where emotional landscape and domestic interior, talk about one another and concrete architectural details ground illusive encounters, something that carries over into Boyd’s works.
Much like the red light that seems to permeate the gallery in Barratt’s performance, the light source in Boyd’s works is often consistent, to the point where figure and ground are one and the same. A certain luminescence pushes through the surface of paint though; a brightness that appears to be present from the base layer. Depth is created on the level of paint surface, as pictorial perspective seems deliberately hindered by the shortening of space due to the merging of furnishing and clothing; body and interior object, particularly in works such as ‘Constellation’. I feel joyfully reminded of contemporary painters Jules de Balincourt and Katherine Bradford when looking at the show, particularly due to the treatment of paint, as well as dynamics between bodies and environment.
Writer Eileen Myles once said that Katherine Bradford was “reconstituting painting” through “wit, subversion and bad geometry.” (4) The notion of a bad geometry is useful to consider in Boyd’s style. By no means do I continue this use of bad, as a value judgement (nor do I believe Myles intended for this). Rather bad geometry as a deliberate refusal of straight edges; for a world to be slanted and curvy. Bad geometry as a queering of environment and resistance to a certain rationality that does not allow the body to breathe. As in de Balincourt, Bradford and Boyd’s paintings, the dynamics that determine a meeting of bodies is shown as an ongoing conversation with their environment.
Nietzsche served in the Franco-Prussian war at the age of 26, became ill with various ailments and from this point was near-blinded for the rest of his life. (5) Thirteen years on he wrote ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ - referred to by Martha Barratt in the exhibition text - whilst still battling with migraines, insomnia and indigestion. Barratt’s reference provides some interesting and timely context, partly because Zarathurstra’s exclamations are uttered after a long period of solitude in a cave. Zarathustra’s speaks of a form of a godless enlightenment that emerges through suffering: “Mine abyss speaketh, my lowest depth have I turned over into the light.” (6) Perhaps an idea that kept Nietszche’s pain bearable; a personal insight that an able-bodied writer may miss.
In 2018, Nina Power begins the article ‘Artist, Heal Thyself!’ with the line “In a capitalist society, fitness is nothing other than a measure of the extent to which you are capable of serving capital.” (7) In the context of a global pandemic where disparities in socio-economic status have been laid bare, there are crucial questions to be asked around how we awaken from this dormant period, and to what extent sickness can serve to educate and liberate us from the destructive qualities of the so-called ‘normal life’ we were leading.
(1) Gabriella Boyd. Personal communication. 12 August 2020.
(2) Edmund Husserl. 1969. ‘Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology’. Trans W.R. Boyce Gibson. London: George Allen and Unwin.
(3) Sara Ahmed. 2006. ‘Queer phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others’. Duke University Press: London; Durham, 3; 37.
(4) Eileen Myles, 1993. ‘Katherine Bradford at David Beitzel Gallery’. Art in America. June 1993
(5) n.a., n.d. ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra: Frederick Nietzsche’, spark notes. https://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/zarathustra/context/
(6) ’57 The Convalescent Thus Spake Zarathustra Friedrich Nietzsche, transl Thomas Common’. hats0fyou. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlnLByC64Gg
(7) Nina Power, ‘Artist, Heal Thyself!’, Art Review (online), 17 October 2018. https://artreview.com/ar-september-2018-feature-nina-power/