Sunday, April 13, 2008

Alison Watt - Phantom

ART London

Alison Watt: Phantom
The Sunley Room at the National Gallery
Trafalgar Square
12 March - 22 June 2008
Admission free.

by Sarah Pasetto

The National Gallery is always bustling with visitors, especially as a Saturday afternoon approaches closing time. The tourists and art lovers hurry from painting to painting, seeking to soak in every last “must-see”, every last detail before being chased out of the lofty rooms. I strode through the crowd, twisting and turning past the remaining eager viewers, past Renaissance and Baroque drama hung against blood-red damask, to enter Alison Watt’s “Phantom” exhibition. Here, the atmosphere was radically different. This was no home for loud whispers, bulky backpacks, harnessed chaos. The only noise in the show’s antechamber was hinted at, by one of the painter’s sources of inspiration: Francisco de Zurbaran’s Saint Francis, robed in rough monk’s cloth, quietly howling in mystical piety.

The exhibition displays a number of vast canvases, each depicting folds of white fabric in close-up. However, far from being clinical or aseptic, they convey a sensation of softness, as does Proserpina in her Bernini incarnation. Human presence is suggested, not only through the inevitable parallel with a slowly-tousled intimacy, but also through the interplay of cloth and negative space. The black gaps mirror parts of the human anatomy - a languidly parted mouth, a narrowed eye, a private cleft. The lighting is suffused, and the walls a cool blue-grey, making the atmosphere as rarefied as the first lights of dawn, and creating the impression that the visitor has been allowed into most intimate chambers. Ultimately, it is an irresistible aura of sensuality that emanates from the collection - overpowering precisely because it consists, like the most refined and mature form of seduction, of intriguing, tantalising, allusion.

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