Air that Mingles Painting with the World
We all know, don't we, that for every four paintings hanging on a wall there is always a fifth artwork, the overall, total installation? And that that last one is crucial and must never be forgotten. Positioning and sequencing is everything, just as panels must be properly ordered in a comic strip.
So it is that with these nine Seraphine Pick paintings, selected and hung by Tim Croucher, there is that tenth work - the installation within the two rooms at RAMP. The way the images resonate together is crucial for our interpretation. There seems to be a woven web of cross references put in place, yet in some ways what we see is surprising. After all most visitors to this show would probably say, oh, Pick, she paints portraits and also surrealist landscapes. She focuses on two sorts of subject matter, each with its own methodology.
Croucher's hang undermines that distinction. The people depicted in the portraits also inhabit the surrealist landscapes, and even within the portraits alone there is strange stuff bubbling up underneath.
In the bigger gallery, on the main wall - in the third work along - we see a dead girl dumped in a bath in the middle of a field. We don't know who. Her body is covered by a rubbish bag, and her booted legs protrude over the edge of the tub. This could be a David Lynch movie set in the Manawatu.
With what little we see of it, we can compare her corpse with the far less shocking image of a naked drunk lying paralytic in the forest at the bottom of King of Toys, which is on the left-hand wall. Flat on his back he is surrounded by empty bottles, and looming high above the scene is a darkhaired woman, absorbed, deep in thought, and surrounded by trees and giant tulips. This serious lady seems also to be the much younger woman in the nearest painting. Alert, if not startled, the subject of Untitled (Cate) watches the viewer intensely.
Within groups Pick's works encourage us to speculate in this manner. We notice another small canvas which depicts a young blonde woman. Untitled (Alice) might be Pick herself, wearing beads and a boa. Her head tilted back, she is irritated and petulant, and seems to be the same person on the opposite side of the room clutching a puppy with a handkerchief over its ears. The sitter in Child with dog has an infectious toothy smile. She glows with a radiant optimism, despite the creepy Christopher Wool-like black leaves and flowers beside her. She has a generosity her surly older self withholds. She exudes sweetness.
Next to "The Body in the Bath" is a portrait of a girl with a carnation behind her ear. Untitled Carol's sitter looks self-conscious and withdrawn. Again one might wildly speculate. Perhaps she is the naked woman at the bottom of the diptych on the next wall, holding a large conch to her ear.
Shared Air is dominated by a bikinied girl, a knife strapped to her thigh, getting a mouthful of air from a wetsuited diver with hairy yetilike legs and small finned feet. Below her is a smaller version of herself again, sitting on a giant anemone paring her nails. Vulvalike seashells hover in the fluid shared by both panels, suspended among reaching tendrils, sticky octopus tentacles, wiggling eels and probing spongy fronds. If the women are not naked they are wearing only togs or underwear. The painting is charged with sexual coding and anticipation.
In the smaller gallery there is an image of a masked furcoated woman with an also-masked dachshund tucked under one arm. Painting the background seems to have triggered off something in Pick. Untitled (Dogmask) has wallpaper where groups of vertical lines rendered with a fine brush hover between abstraction and realism. Some advance beyond the pictureplane to become palpable wirelike forms.
The two paintings in this room tell us a little about the way Pick works. The black dog is clearly the same animal as the brown puppy held by the girl in Child and Dog. It shows how the artist takes a model from real life and uses it to kick-start an image from fantasy, by incorporating spontaneous changes to arrive at unanticipated forms. She seems to have a low threshold of boredom that encourages improvisation, being disposed to alter reality with her paint application just to see what happens.
Like a jazz saxophonist playing and then altering a melody, Pick likes to extemporize. She is fascinated by paint as a means of exploration, as a tool for thinking. Working the substance laden paintbrush to cajole her imagination into activity, her mental pictures guide the brush into feeding modified versions back onto the canvas. Hand and inner eye almost go their different ways, but not quite. She never loses that unity, that essential resolution.
Written by John Hurrell