Monday 8 June 2015

Review of Sarah Muirhead: Bonded with guests Paula Rego & Leonor Fini at Leyden Gallery

Sarah Muirhead: Bonded
with guests Paula Rego & Leonor Fini
Leyden Gallery
3 - 27 June 2015

Sarah Muirhead’s paintings are theatrical and visceral. Photorealistic in their minute detail, they portray friends and acquaintances whose jobs are physically expressive. Estlin Love is a trapeze artist, Amanda is an actor, Kasia is a shibari artist and Ross is a model. Their personalities are all completely entwined with what they do, how they move and what they look like. This concept of entwinement – of there being this intrinsic bond between occupation and self – led gallery director Adriana Cerne to come up with the exhibition’s title, Bonded, a title which has resonances on other levels too, in particular with the work Self Restraint.

This painting is a double portrait of the shibari artist Kasia, aka Skinny Redhead. Shibari literally means ‘to tie’ and the practice involves an ancient Japanese form of artistic bondage. Inherently a submissive practice, Kasia fascinated Muirhead because she works alone, tying herself, without a master. For this, she needs absolute physical strength and discipline and she is in full control of her body. The addition of an inverted triangle in the centre of the painting is twofold: on the one hand, it was an aesthetic addition to balance the composition, and, on the other hand, it is a subversion of the female symbol, echoing Kasia’s subversion of her art.

Another double portrait is The Performer’s Apparition, in which actor Amanda Wass throws back her head and peers around, open-mouthed, fearful. Muirhead explains: “The double portrait reflects the idea of seeing one’s self, of duplicity and the need to compartmentalise. We talked about feeling slightly separated from yourself and, in a really basic, literal way, I wanted there to be two parts that were reacting to each other in the composition but weren’t fully aware that the other side was there.”

Amanda’s face is daubed white with face paint, a common feature in Muirhead’s work. The shaven-headed, dark-skinned Alloysious in Rokeby has likewise used the paint to delineate the contours of his body. His skin looks so textured and real that I am drawn to touch it. Close up, it is almost pointilliste, with tiny daubs of blue and pink and yellow on top of the underlying browns and blacks. Muirhead’s mark making is intricate and honest and carries over to her series of biro drawings as well, where she works so intently that she is able to build up shadows and fingerprints and almost DNA-like detail on each strand of hair.

Muirhead often works with a projector to cast images across her models, adding to the narrative and the complexity of her compositions. For Noble Savage and Earthly Delights, she used the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-04) to cast a cadence of prisms across Estlin Love’s figure and, for Pacify Love, she used the FKA twigs music video for the song Papi Pacify, in which a man stands behind the singer, forcing his fingers into her mouth and pulling her head around in really slow motion. For Muirhead, this captures the idea of obsession. The original image gets lost, but it still outlines the contours of Estlin Love’s body. The stripes actually result from the artist’s use of a slightly dilapidated projector, which splits things into prisms, but it is a happy chance effect. “It’s a nice way of exploring colour,” Muirhead says. “Actually having things divided into yellows and blues and reds rather than just black and white and clean layers.” It certainly poses a challenge for the artist, as she can no longer paint either the projected image or the skin as she knows it to be underneath. She has to somehow capture the essence of both, without the resulting image falling flat. This is something only a talented painter could achieve – and Muirhead achieves it with flying colours.

Also published on DIVA online


all © the artist

Self Restraint
acrylic on canvas

The Performer's Apparition
acrylic on canvas

Earthly Delights
acrylic on canvas

Pacify Love
acrylic on board

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