‘CAULD BLEW THE BITTER BITING NORTH’
Paintings by Louise Cattrell
Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries
3 July - 1 August 1993
The five most recent of Louise Cattrell's new paintings are identical in scale, and share the same palette of a delicately muted grey, touched only with the merest hints of other colours. Common to each painting is a sense of understatement and together they represent a culmination of her last four years of work. No mark is hurried or rushed, there is no aggression in the execution, no sense of anything other than gentleness and peace. The paint is thin, yet occasionally it manages to retain a kind of texture that is almost, but not quite, bold enough to be called' impasto', that gives a sense of the personality behind their execution.
This delicacy of surface helps to define them as 'modern' paintings, objects which have an autonomous existence in their own right. They could easily be looked at and enjoyed as abstract paintings. This would however, be to miss the true meaning of these paintings, because they are uncompromisingly figurative, each canvas referring to a concrete physical experience that is to do in the first place with looking at landscape, but ultimately with more than just looking. The success of the work is that it uses visual experience as a starting point to guide us on our way towards sensing that landscape.
There is an anecdote that was told of the great English landscape painter, JMW Turner,
by a woman who shared a carriage with him. On speeding across a bridge during a torrential rainstorm, Turner insisted on leaning out of the window, urging his reluctant co-passenger to do likewise. The result was his now celebrated Rain, Steam, and Speed, which was recognised much later by the incredulous woman, who having shared the experience with Turner, was fully aware that his painting was not simply about things seen, but about sensations, of what it felt to be rushing through space with your eyes tightly shut, with the cold rain driving against your face, the wind whipping through your hair.
Similarily, although Louise's paintings have their origins in visual experience, of the perception of mist and fog, of sky and space, unless sealed up in a transparent cocoon,
no one who experiences a landscape will do so only visually. One will use other senses to feel the landscape, feel its texture and temperature, its air and its moisture. One will hear the breeze blowing and things moving, maybe one will even achieve that exhilaration that comes of sitting down to rest at the end of a long walk through particularly beautiful though arduous country.
Louise's paintings evoke these sensations in the viewer. She is a Scottish artist, with a deep sense of belonging to a particular landscape, the landscape of the Scottish west, the coast of Dumfriesshire that can be hard and rocky, or generously undulating and rich. What she has portrayed in these canvases is the sense of watching the landscape reveal itself, as the layers of the grey early morning mist melt slowly away.
These five paintings, and the equally delicate smaller works in the series, have a vaporous feel to them that hints of coolness, freshness and moisture. On further contemplation solid forms occasionally give hints of their existence through the mist, but nothing more. Maybe rocks, maybe trees, it is not possible to say, as Louise uses paint to define form in a way that hovers on that knife-edge between the abstract and figurative.
Sometimes the titles are helpful, Ben An for instance, refers to the mountain of that name, or rather to a particular experience of that mountain. It is certainly therefore a landscape painting, but without a specific viewpoint. Space creates itself through the subtle modulation of the greys, applied with different degrees of translucence, ranging from the diaphanous to the solid.
Craig has areas of flat brushmarks that seem to skid or scrape across the surface. They absorb the light rather than reflect it and provide dead, stark areas with a lifeless energy that hints at granite hardness. Other passages of the painting seem lighter and fluffier, like clouds, or transparent like mist.
These paintings may seem to be deliberately limited in their means of expression, but different kinds of brushstroke, different consistencies of paint and hints of other colours combine to create surprising varieties of effect. At first the paintings may look totally grey, but gradually they will reveal their shapes and spaces, in the same way we can watch the sun burn off the mist that initially shrouds and obscures a Scottish mountain range.
Paintings slightly earlier in date, Ferry and Storm of Glass, have stronger physical references. Ground is represented, and elements that hint at a human presence. A sense of the mysterious resonates in these paintings, with features such as the strange monument seen in Ferry, evoking the same kind of echoes of long-vanished people that can be strongly felt at those neolithic sites with their ancient grey stones, that are spread so frequently throughout the West of Scotland.
Storm of Glass is painted in a similar key, with a similar low viewpoint, as an outcrop of rocks lead into the distance, apparently out to sea. The stillness is absolute. Neither a ripple in the water, nor a hint of a breeze is allowed to disturb the almost eerie sense of the tranquility. It is a painting that shares the same kind of Romantic symbolism, and a sense of a world that is not touchable, that is seen in an artist like Caspar David Friedrich.
Similarly with The Man who made the journey to Granada and Plantation Euachan, both pictures with an earthier tonality that glow with a a warmth that brings a sense of richness and optimism. Whether, like the most recent work in this exhibition, about air,
sky and space or like these two works, filled with the resonances of life and human activity, these paintings are about the landscape and the artist's personal responses and enjoyment of it, an enjoyment that she allows us to share.
Copyright Colin Wiggins
The National Gallery, London