The fifteen, light-infused works that make up London-based painter Phoebe Unwin’s exhibition at Towner Art Gallery give the impression of the snatched in-between moments of life that work together to create memories. The exhibition’s title, ‘Iris’, takes its name from the artist’s late grandmother but it also nods to the workings of the eye as light, atmosphere and objects take their effect on our senses. Towner’s summer exhibition marks its tenth anniversary and Unwin’s blurry blend of abstraction and figuration feels apt for the foggy haze of summer.
Unwin graduated from the Slade in 2005 and found immediate success, with Wilkinson Gallery quickly picking her up and Tate acquiring a work for their collection in 2010. As a painter she has developed a distinctive style, going beyond narrative to the very essence of experience. Her work often feels strangely photographic, as if looking at a landscape through a camera lens brought dizzyingly out of focus. In fact, Unwin works only from memory and never from observation or photographs, and accordingly the work resides firmly in the realm of the impressionistic, transcending the detail of everyday life, whilst being infused with a suggestive darkness.
The first four modestly sized works in murky shades of green look straight down on an egg, quivering rapidly in water as it boils. In ‘Glass’ (2019), the effect is almost luridly photographic, like the quick flare of a lens as the egg overexposes to hot white. Nearby, ‘In Blue’ (2019) shows the egg in muffled tones and is reminiscent of a womb, the light seeping like ink through the darkness. Unwin is in her element when the paintings feel like complex studies in colour, shape, texture and light, but the show is something of a mixed bag in this regard. ‘Snow’ (2019), for example, is jarring in its emptiness, a small canvas with a crayon line trailing half-heartedly across it. ‘Hair’ (2019) is similarly, uncharacteristically facile in its highlighter shades of yellow and orange, emptied of their heat and richness.
There are several canvases here, however, that showcase Unwin at her most absorbing. ‘Shutter’ (2018) is evocative of a flashed memory of sunshine through a window in gorgeous hushed pinks and the green woody texture of an old house. ‘Pregnant Landscape’ (2018) is exuberantly bright, with bokeh-effect balloon shapes floating soft, plump and velvety in the sunny field. The strongest and most mysterious painting is the last, ‘Edge’ (2019), which presents an emerald green sky in a light reminiscent of dusk just gone. The darkness seeps unctuously down into the landscape, its blackness flecked with blood red. The dreamlike atmosphere is suggestive of intrigue, of hidden narratives being enacted outside of the frame, like an abstracted stage set for a shadowy psychological drama.
While these highly evocative paintings feel slightly out of place in a concrete white cube, (I can’t help but imagine their effect in an old house somewhere, with creaking floorboards and dust motes catching the light) this is, for the most part, a strong display of Unwin’s ability to slowly but vividly evoke moods that feel like memories.