Yelena Popova: The Portrait Gallery
1 February - 2 March 2013
Review by Henry Little
Two walls of COLE are painted a dark, institutional bluey-grey. This divides the exhibition space into one complete installation on the left, and a white wall left otherwise blank apart from two reworked and conventionally framed National Portrait Gallery postcards on the right. The coloured wall encloses a series of paintings in varying sizes, which loll drunkenly to one side; rest on empty gilt frames, or support dismembered pieces of gilt furniture. Each painting is left remarkably bare: un-primed linen with ghostly white swirls and small gold dots. The twisting, translucent white forms on each canvas, evocative of faint x-rays, are abstractions of historical portraits. In one you might catch the outline of the sitter and suggestions of garments, in others the figure has all but disappeared apart from occasional familiar forms. On the opposite wall, the two postcards, hung as a pair in very close proximity, have been repainted with rich off-white gloss paint. In each, the original sitter has been almost totally obscured. Ribbons of paint trace drapery folds and create looping ripples which cumulatively obliterate the original image, like a memory fading.
The hang is littered with about half a dozen gilt wooden elements such as a piece of chair leg, or the front section of a chair with a pair of legs, as if a chair habitually employed for marquee weddings has been assimilated piecemeal into the display. Two picture frames have also been included: a rectangular example supports an unframed painting, while an oval number leans against the wall on top of another canvas, with its linen counterpart caught between it and a gilt wedge. The gilt elements have a peculiar effect, in that they speak of both the kind of art canonised in the National Portrait Gallery, as well as those artistically dubious daubs which appear along the northern edge of Hyde Park on a sunny day.
The display is intentionally shambolic, or at least arranged to evoke such an assessment, but also appears to mock dense institutional hangs which signify grandeur with signs that accrue only impotence as time passes. Moving between galleries which display contemporary art to those which house works from the art historical canon, the viewer could be forgiven for an attack of Stendhal syndrome, catalysed by the giddying difference in the density of works. Contemporary spaces now compete to show the least number of works in the largest possible space, while the crowded viewing galleries of London’s historical institutions do the opposite. This can, in part, be attributed to contrasting aesthetic and theoretical paradigms, but also to the use of space and distance to venerate. While contemporary art is accorded more and more white space, most museums are short on storage and carry vast stocks of work. The display at COLE can consequently and most productively be understood as an eloquent comment on these differences. Similarly, as time passes the empty trappings of status surrounding portraits - gilt frames, lavish costumes, the mode of display - often become the most voluble.