Our first academic encounter with Celia Paul came through an indirect source: Rebecca Birrell's 'This Dark Country,' a book that dedicates a section to Gwen John, perceived by Celia Paul as her spiritual twin or, we dare to say, her contemporary reincarnation. The painting "Waiting Muse (After Gwen John)" reminded us that the kinship between the two painters is still present and alive.
To truly grasp the essence of Celia Paul, one must then follow the strands of Gwen John's creative odyssey, live in her silent interiors, and realize that both their lives are defined and given meaning by the act of painting itself. As with John's, Paul's paintings are a reflection on the experience of gender, autonomy, and the unique challenges and triumphs faced by women artists working alone in their studios.
Celia places herself in each painting in the show, in some becoming the subject, in others becoming the observer, but it's always her. Whether it's a seascape, a still life with flowers, or a figure as the main focus, each piece serves as a self-portrait centered on the pleasures of solitude and observation, with a visual language that combines style, vision, and intimacy at its core.
Paul's palette, delicate and iridescent, whispers in nutmeg and cobblestone hues, hushing the loud noise from the outside world, offering instead a subtlety that speaks in the soft sighs of morning dew and moonlight shadows. Her colors, murmured by the brush, unfold in layers of tender tones across the canvas, translucent veils, subtly defying the brashness of the graphic.
In her meditative approach to painting, she allows color and texture to articulate the concept, standing in stark contrast to story-telling or hyperrealism, both so praised these days in contemporary representational categories of painting. Intriguingly, both Celia and Gwen bear last names that sound traditionally male, as though they possess the power to break the biblical curse of aggressive heteromasculine influence that has historically dominated the art world, thereby reshaping those role associations.
Her self-portraits, set against the stark backdrop of her painting domesticities, exude a fierce, unyielding tenacity. These are not poses of caution or fear; instead, they represent an unshakeable foundation and sustenance that have liberated her from any constraints. A female figure, throned against a blank space with her arms at her side or on her lap and eyes fixed straight ahead, encapsulating the joy of living simply and alone as a painter and embracing the freedoms that that offers.
We were particularly drawn to her floral subjects, which reveal not only an unapologetic fondness for classic botanical themes and their pictorial possibilities but also a personal connection with nature. In pieces like 'Roses in the Studio,' Paul asserts that it is the garden that comes to her and not the other way around, affirming her unbreakable priority to her practice. Compositionally, her floral paintings maintain a signature style: uncluttered spaces with a singular focus, a spartan approach that rejects the notion of multi-sensorial pleasure in favor of a concentrated observation, her way of interrogating the truth out of a subject.
In her landscape paintings, Celia retracts from detail, allowing perspective to expand the space into a study of light and atmosphere, devoid of hard edges, texture, or intricate details. These works eschew both natural and human-made architecture. In pieces like "Fiery Sky" or "Light Breaking Through," we witness Paul's unique vision of space, akin to being inside a shell, gazing at mother-of-pearl-like walls. By removing conventional focal points, Paul shifts the focus from the descriptive to the feeling of being in space, as perceived from the observer's viewpoint, turning the subject into an experiential moment, much like standing in nature. This approach results in works that are more refined, meticulously studied, and intelligently layered.
Then, there are the astral self-portraits of the painter in her studio. These images serve as totemic representations of Paul herself. Her monk-like figure, shrouded in shades of mauve and violet, confronts the viewer with a gaze filled with depth, hardness, and a hint of melancholy. In "Painter Seated in her Studio," Paul addresses herself in the third person, nameless but defined by what she does, as removing the focus from herself to perhaps universalize the experience of painting. Hands resting on her lap, her presence seems to say, "Look at me; who I am is what I do." These portrait is its own version of "The Artist is Present", where there are no stories told, no questions answered, just her and you, and it's up to you to remain silent, make judgements, or cast opinions. Still, nothing is going to change the immutability of the portrait.
In this monumental portrait, the studio walls are peppered with a constellation of interrupted strokes representing marks and dents. Paintings within a painting, these echo the remnants on her smock or the floor accumulated over years of painting, subtly reflecting the exhibit's title, which playfully suggests a double meaning: physical traces of artistic labor as scars accrued over a lifetime. Time painted, these' imperfections' make her merge and disappear into her painting practice, physically and conceptually. They are poignant reminders of critical moments lived and long gone, yet not entirely erased. Each a story, a struggle, a triumph, a loss, or a memory, contributing to the present picture of the artist's creative and personal history, her survival, and her resilience.
Life Painting, until March 9, 2024, at Vielmetter Los Angeles, 1700 S Santa Fe Ave, #101, LA CA 90021 +1 213 623 3280