Paintings by Helen Donley and Elizabeth Talbot
"What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?"
Hamlet Act II Scene II
The search for nurture in the art of the past is frequently a source of anxiety for today's painter. The reductive reasoning of successive waves of the avant-garde has construed sympathy as sickly dependence, a failure to acknowledge the need for a year zero in which the art of the museums is swept away by an exemplary art of the present moment. To have regard for what painters before us have done is by this reasoning to indulge in a form of self examination which disables our capacity for acting in the here and now - to be of our time. At its most extreme, for theorists who see no meaningful distinction between the activities of the artist as an artist and the living of her life in other ways history as a tool of individual retrospection is a paralysing encumbrance. As if this were not trouble enough historians of art have come increasingly to promote a view of art as a system of signposts pointing to problematic social or political realities. The banishment of aesthetics from such a scheme leaves no significant place for the connections worked out through practice of one painter with another. Painting is reduced to a set of illustrations to histories unconnected to its own.
The painters in this exhibition are deeply aware of the conflicts involved in the interrogation of their artistic genealogy. They are, however sustained by the knowledge that paintings from the past live in the present. They are alert to, but not in awe of those censoring voices which seek to exclude the possibility that expressive sympathies can be awakened in the work of past centuries. The physical survival of that work guarantees that the art of the past must also be the art of today. These artists hold unique and complex conversations with the past made present.
In the work of Helen Donley responses to qualities of surface and nuances of gesture and pose are an intimate link to the tradition of painting passed from Titian to Velasquez, from Watteau to Goya and Manet. These exchanges are not part of a scholarly text but of a traffic in things felt and seen. Nor does this become a game of Chinese whispers for the act of translation leads not to a sum of losses but to a gain in new and unanticipated meanings.
Elizabeth Talbot too deals with interwoven strands of perception. This is not a matter of referring to sustaining sources for their own sake. Rather she is reflecting on the sometimes startling consequences of the weaving and reweaving of certain traditions of landscape image making. Her practice exploits the sometimes banal inheritance of "artistic" landscape photography alongside the undiluted original vision of Corot or Friedrich. In consequence no two of these tensely structured paintings is alike every reference having been sifted and sieved for its essential emotional resonance.
These artists have held so many conversations with so many. Not with ghosts but with immortals.
Gavin Robson, 2006
Gavin Robson is Head of Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He wrote this catalogue essay for the Surface Tension exhibition held at the Myles Meehan Gallery in Darlington 2006.