To look, but more than that to see
by Lizzie Lloyd
They swim, they sleep, they dream, they dress up in costume, they scrutinize themselves in mirrors, they linger in landscapes and loiter by roadsides. Women figure, alone. We’ve seen them represented in moments and places like these countless times, in paintings, photographs, films and books through history. That’s part of their provocation for Laura Lancaster: how can you pull an image-type, of the sort you’ve seen a thousand times, back from cliché? How can you see it again? How can you see beyond it? The images Lancaster begins with are family snapshots of strangers found in online marketplaces and yet, despite their anonymity, they feel familiar. They carry what art critic Vernon Lee might call an unspecified ‘borrowed feeling’. But what to do with a feeling that did not start with you? How to host images of bodies that are not yours, in places that you haven't been?
It all happens in haste; the wetness of Lancaster’s paint dictates this. Colour builds through an entourage of choppy, loosely scrawled marks that are sometimes streaked by traces of the bristles of her brush, at others swiftly wiped away, leaving just the residue. These paintings are caught in a balance of too much; never enough. When she can, when scale allows, she moves around the canvas coming at it from all angles. She tips it up, coaxing drips to fall, before catching them, scooping them up again in a thick, impulsive smear. The marks that make up the image dance and flit, scattering their parts across the expanse of the canvas only just holding it together, whatever ‘it’ is. The speed of execution is key to keep the paintings active, alive, and on the brink of something else: ‘It’s like trying to capture that moment when a painting still feels wet,’ she tells me, ‘or as if the painting could move when you look away’.
There is an indeterminate urgency to them. Even when Lancaster’s depictions of women are caught in moments of stillness or physical inaction – sitting, lying, standing – as painted surfaces they make themselves known through a fretful simmering. The singular unit of the body is broken up; individual body parts are described by brushes that are deliberately too big and imprecise for the job so that it is only in their relationship with neighbouring parts that they begin to register as brow, nose, hair. It is only in the looking that parts realign, that a whole begins to emerge, so that a face, a torso, a body, suggest themselves. Not that they ever quite get there. I imagine her brushwork like a shoal of marks that have lost their unifying purpose. They disband and reform, feeling out their invisible lines of connection and coordination; they happen upon a form, a form that looks familiar, that happens to look a bit like a body in a place. But Lancaster’s women, through Lancaster’s hand, are resistant to this kind of perceptual pinning down. They are nervy, like racing minds. They squirm from the pressure of a gaze weighed down by history, evading lines of sight that are too direct, too determining. Soon enough a drip, a looping squiggle, a thick rolling smudge, or a wavering smear whips the image of a woman up into a froth of deflective acrobatic flourishes and the process of looking, and seeing, and defining begins again.
Something in all this reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1891). In this short story, an unnamed protagonist records her experience of having been prescribed bed rest for ‘temporary nervous depression’ and a ‘slight hysterical tendency’. Through what amounts to an extended imprisonment in her bedroom, she begins to see ‘sprawling flamboyant patterns’ and an ‘optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase’ spilling from the peeling wallpaper. She traces these forms day and night and through their undulating movement she begins to see the form of a woman, slipping silently out of the wallpaper and into the night. As time passes, Gilman’s narrator sees more of these furtive figures and starts to identify as one of them, seeing herself materializing from and merging with the walls and imagined bodies around her. The way I see it, the turbulence of Gilman’s wallpaper, from which pareidolic bodies appear, is akin to the effect of Lancaster’s restless liquid smears; both see the surfacing of an other woman, the dissolution of an other woman, the readjustment of a woman alone in her surroundings.
Where Gilman’s protagonist is clearly imprisoned in her room, the relationship between Lancaster’s women and their surroundings is more equivocal. She never allows her figures to disappear completely, she is always searching for that moment where definition and obscurity meet. You’ll find waves of roiling passages of paint that skim the contours of a body, which is only barely distinguishable from the shrubbery behind, and the ground beneath her. But whether Lancaster’s women actively emerge from the vibrating elements of a landscape or are passively absorbed by them, is less sure. It begs the question, where do we, our bodies, our roles, our sense of ourselves – in a place and at a time – begin and end? It recalls a sensation described by one of the two female protagonists of Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed series of novels set in Naples. Lila, the wilder, more unpredictable, more intuitive of the two relates the feeling of momentary, but repeated, smarginatura, loosely translated from the Italian as ‘dissolving margins’. Lila, through the voice of the narrator, her friend Lenù, describes the feeling of ‘moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or thing or a number or syllable, violating its edges’. Lancaster’s paintings seem to occupy precisely the moment of those ‘few fractions’.
The precarity of such edges is everywhere in Lancaster’s work. Forms that describe other forms, marks that represent themselves and something else – a leaf? a signpost? a hand? an arm? – melt and bleed and smear, without ever descending into indistinct vagaries. Sometimes the dissolution of edges manifests physically: in the smudge of red that stands for mouth, the frame of sepia-tinted yellow that mimics the margins of an old photo, or the blur of grey-white cloud that erupts into a streaky trail of paint. But dissolution is also a necessary byproduct of her painting process. She begins with a photograph. She draws the photograph, in part or whole, not to describe it but to distil the feeling that she gets on viewing it. Then she paints from the drawing of the photograph. And then again she paints from the painting of the drawing of the photograph. With each iteration, the edge that separates one version from the next is breached. And the image that acted as Lancaster’s catalyst dissolves into partial oblivion; each successive rendition is a rewilding, a casting off of the original borrowed image.
These stages of mediation are key. Every stage of the process involves shifting between looking and making, between what is there and what feels there. It sets up a process of gradual filtration, where Lancaster is looking to embrace, as she put it, the ‘sense of loss inherent in the act of translation from one form to another’. Lancaster’s translations do not strive for accurate replication, though. They have more in common with Kate Briggs’ account of literary translation in This Little Art (2017). Briggs sees literary translation as ‘produced from a reader’s felt relationship to a piece of writing’. ‘Translation as a practice,’ Briggs writes, ‘is a way for such a reader to add, attach, append herself (actively, ongoing) to that writing by writing it herself and in so doing, for her to change it, distort it precisely because what she has made is not it but something else (something new) that is now set in a relation to it but might very well come to be read as it’. Lancaster’s painterly appendages and distortions involve a doing away with the extraneous, ensuring that unnecessary details are lost so that what remains – her ‘something new’ – quivers with psychological charge and replaces the ‘it’ of the photograph with which things all began.
Lancaster refers to this psychological charge as ‘presence’; John Berger might have termed it ‘thereness’. But what strikes me about Lancaster’s paintings is the certainty, the decisiveness, with which she also renders ‘not-thereness’. ‘I’m trying to find the most economical way to get the maximum feeling of presence’, she says. Economical might not be the word that comes to mind when you see paint-laden Lancaster canvases but, in fact, a major part of her painting process is the enactment of its own effacement. It involves the removal of paint, through vigorous wiping away, as much as it does its application. Dissolution, as we’ve seen, accrues gradually anyway through her repetitions of images that distance themselves from their source, but obliteration is also enacted violently, unwaveringly, and without nuance. This is an urge that veers on the self-destructive: ‘wiping offsets the virtuosity of the brushwork,’ she tells me, ‘I’ve always been paranoid about painting getting too precious. I want it to feel like everything that is there has been saved from obliteration’. Pulling between the there and the not-there, Lancaster ensures that neither her figures nor her viewers get comfortable.
Her work is fraught with such contradictory forces. She is obsessed with painting while being repelled by its propensity to the contrived. She shies away from sentimentalism while making paintings that constitute an extended reaction to found family photographs which themselves often weigh heavy with rose-tinted pasts. There’s a perversity to building her work around a body of familiar-feeling images, and a mode of image-making, to which she is at once attracted and repulsed, and to which she returns again and again. It creates a tension that is defined by her repeated attempts to look, but more than that to see. Even if you’ll never see the various versions of a Laura Lancaster image exhibited together, what you do see could never exist if it weren’t for the preceding nesting doll of images, seen, rendered, remembered, reiterated, readjusted. Each echoed image of a woman leaves its mark, adding and subtracting from the one that came before, arranging and rearranging its parts. Each iteration ferments; pressure builds. Women’s bodies have historically borne the burden of repeated exposure, monitoring and defining, but Lancaster renders those borrowed bodies evasive and slippery. Her unspecified women in unspecified places are never captured, but on the brink of a smarginatura, resisting the determining trespass of your gaze.
Lizzie Lloyd is a Bristol-based writer, artist and researcher. She has contributed to Art Monthly, artnet, Art Review, Journal of Contemporary Painting among other art magazines and journals. Her writing has been commissioned by artists such as Katie Paterson, Ben Owen, Hannah Murgatroyd, and Tim Knowles and been commissioned by Hestercombe Gallery, UH Gallery, Foreground, Plymouth College of Art, KARST, and Exeter Phoenix among others.
She teaches at University of the West of England (Fine Art /Art and Visual Culture), Bath Spa University (Historical and Contextual Studies – Art and Design) and University of Bristol (History of Art). She facilitates specialist art writing workshops – designed for practitioners, industry professionals and students – previously at Hauser and Wirth Somerset, Plymouth Art Centre and Index The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation.
Her doctoral thesis 'Art Writing and Subjectivity: Critical Association in Art Historical Practice' was completed in 2019 at University of Bristol.