SARAH BEDDINGTON: HALES GALLERY - LONDON, ENGLAND
Sarah Beddington, blue skies, (detail) series of 4 panels, oil on canvas
The signs, symbols, and marks which the painter makes to create a coherent image, occupy a seemingly inexhaustible field of permutations. Sarah Beddington has opted for a photo-realist approach to painting, but unlike those before her, such as Richard Estes, Ralph Goings or Malcolm Morley, or contemporary work such as Jason Brooks' supra-real portraits, Kiera bennett's street scenes, or Mark fairnington's humming-birds, she immerses the picture-plane in the intricate laminae of time's passage, and those cross-currents of memory, which alter its perceived flow. We view beddington's images as if through a series of veils, a permutation she has chosen in order to transform the demeanor of the depicted scenes, as a device to emulate the filter of memory. These scenes, often of banal, unoccupied spaces, are elevated and ennobled, by an overlay of rich, sumptuous colors, pinks, reds violets, and purples are ubiquitous, with the occasional highlights of gold or lime. The subtle sweep of lines and stripes traversing these paintings seems to be woven not from the traces or skins of their photographic source but from the threads of memory itself. The landscape format paintings are horizontally striped, the portrait format, vertically.
From the platform of beddington's work, this viewer feels happy to stand outside the whole debate about painting and its relevance in the electronic age with a certain degree of curiosity and puzzlement. If not for the signs on their surfaces which are evidence of an exacting and intricate manual process which is both labor intensive and precise, the viewer might be easily convinced that she or he was witnessing the product of some sophisticated hi-tech reproduction system. Beddington offers the viewer the temptation to touch the surfaces of her paintings, whose visual illusion of sculpted velvet is broken by that very touch, their visual and tactile qualities being in totally different leagues. The rhythms of the tactile and visual explorations of our surroundings, augmented by the other senses, build up a cognitive picture of our world; these rhythms build up patterns whose unique registers become indices around which memory is hung. It is through rhythms of course that we also perceive the passage of time. beddington's paintings are a matrix of interwoven rhythms whose differing intervals and signatures mimic our eccentric perceptions and recollections of the play of time. Beddington is not asking us to look at her paintings, but to look into them; our eyes are said to offer a window into our souls, conversely these paintings are windows into timescapes whose perceived intervals and signatures are reflections of the viewer's soul.
There is something dreamlike about these paintings at the Hales Gallery. A series of seven paintings, with the collective title models, all in an exaggerated portrait format, depict the hallways and stairways leading up to prostitutes' rooms in Soho. These images are gripped by a palpable tension, the deserted spaces are held in a stasis where absence provides a portal for an imminence that prompts both pleasure and fear in equal measures the pull of the illicit which beckons and threatens at the same time. These are non-places where reality slips uncomfortably into fantasy and where, deflated, fantasy limps back again into the real world. Places of transit, both physical and emotional, they provide desolate byways to and from sleazy street and tawdry room. Maybe the overlay of red paint is a shade predictable, but it conveys well the sensation of constriction and compulsion, with both of which the punter must battle. The mood of these images is somewhat reminiscent of that prevalent in James Casebere's prison-cell images, (which, coincidentally, are being shown concurrently at MoMA in Oxford) where any penitence could be equally sacred or secular, prayerful or penal, while here it would undoubtedly be servile, strictly by S&M rules. Fear and pleasure, hope and despair vie for precedence in the images of both of these artists.
The centerpiece of this show is undoubtedly beddington's blue skies, a series of four laundromat images, large landscape-format paintings of the deserted interiors of laundromats whose exaggerated perspectives, wrought through a clean, economic graphical style, lend these sites an undeserved air of mystique. The rhythm of the juxtaposed canvases re-inforces the rhythms within their images, the rows of machines and their windows, the walls and their shadows the horizontally striped and lined paint echoing the rhythm of the lights, all impose on our eye to structure our perception of these works. Beddington plays here with subtle distortions and lapses in the clarity of the images, aping the tricks that time and memory play on the mental images we retain of places we frequent. The color tones change progressively across this series of paintings from lighter, pinkish and mauve tones on the left-hand panel, to darker magentas and violets in the right-hand panel transforming the mood from a neutral matter-of fact mien to a more somber, introspective cast. The pattern of s es is integrated right across the series, maintaining the illusion that they were all executed in one expansive sweep. United by surface, they nevertheless retain a distinct autonomy by dint of their self-contained scenes, recalling those anomalies of memory, which attempt to connect disconnected events, rather than dreams that succeed.
Five small paintings showing police cells, three from within, behind closed doors and two looking in through the open cell door, convey totally different sensations. Here Beddington imparts the only traces of narrative in the show, where in views of the same cell, looking in through the door, the blankets on the beds are folded in one image, and disturbed in the other, an intimation of presence, the signs of an event.
The inscribed lines on the surfaces of Sarah Beddington's paintings give them a machined, precision-look which denies the hand-finished nature of these works the hours of patient and fastidious point-and-ruler work which imparts a three-dimensional quality to these images. Just as the play of the light varies as your angle of view changes when viewing something through a veil, so here the colors change, and the depth of image, afforded by reflected incident light, fluctuates, as the viewer moves in front of these paintings, giving them a slightly eerie, uncanny cast.
Beddington's choice of non-places, neutral spaces, sites of compulsion, utility, or constraint, where time is a major parameter in their use, places of absence more than presence, places of acquaintance rather than familiarity, combined with the lack of any human presence gives these images an unsettling, uncanny air which somehow contradicts their sumptuous, blatantly beautiful surfaces. Fascinated, yet somewhat confused, the viewer leaves these paintings with a slightly edgy, unfulfilled feeling, as if more questions have been asked than have been answered. Beddington is asking us to form a relationship to these depicted spaces which she herself obviously finds intriguing, we are asked to inhabit these spaces not with our bodies, but with our minds, and they are bleak and forbidding, so we resist and are left in limbo, trawling the questions that these images pose, both about the places, and beddington's motives.