catalogue essay by LAURA CUMMING
Walk into a room hung with Louise Cattrell's paintings and the visible world suddenly expands into infinity. Her pictures glow on the wall like miraculous windows, revealing the great air beyond, the endless ocean of the sky, the measureless vapours of the sea.
Like a window, they frame the landscape. But where a window can only offer a small fragment of reality, these canvases invite you into a boundless space that is limited neither by perspective nor geography. They have their origin in the real world,in Scotland especially ,but what Cattrell saw in certain places passes through the double filter of imagination and memory to become what you see now :exhilarating adventures through the atmosphere, conducted entirely in paint.
Stand in front of one of Cattrell's airy expanses, so vast, so ethereal, and you feel the thrilling rush of being flung into the void like a bird taking flight. Often, you have no idea where you stand as viewer in relation to the sky. Are you looking up at it, or down upon it as though from a high mountain top? Are you airborne within it like a plane or a cloud? The conventions of landscape painting have all but been abolished to create this mysterious sensation of aerial freedom.
In Lammas, for example, there is no horizon line by which to navigate the eye. There is no sense of far or middle distance, or of height from the ground. The air looms up close, rippling with sudden lights and vapours, partially concealing dense clouds beyond. The sky has clearings and forests like the unseen earth below it, pools of moisture and spots of peachy warmth. The paint is so delicately nuanced as to convey all these possibilites at once the onset of dawn or dusk, of rain,of wind, of climatic tumult. The surprise is in the picture's title - for the Quarter Day of Lammas falls on the first of August.
Louise Cattrell painted this vision of the sublime in a cold narrow studio in the East End of London. Since 1980 when she left her native Scotland to study at the Royal College of Art, she has been recollecting the wide landscapes of her early life in the most cramped and over-crowded city in Britain. There, in a grid of buildings so tight you can see no more than an inch or two of sky above you, she creates these images of open infinity.
Cattrell was born in Glasgow in 1957 and spent much of her childhood in Dumfries. Her family took holidays in the West of Scotland. There are hints of these places in the titles of her pictures - Craig ,which refers to the rocky volcanic crag of Ailsa Craig, Ben An, the mountain outside Glasgow. But she is not standing in front of them as she paints - these are blue remembered hills.
Unlike the Impressionists, who took their easels out in the open air to capture the fleeting play of light upon form, Cattrell is confined to the studio, the chamber of the mind. Her art embodies a lingering memory, not a transient image. When you remember a landscape, you remember your presence within it - how you got there, what it felt like underfoot, whether you felt chilly or hot. So her paintings also incorporate the sensation of being there, of feeling the soft drizzle or the faint breeze in the Lammas air.
In Crawick, painted in 1996 in her Stratford East studio, veils of moisture drift through the landscape. This is an evocation of a particular Dumfries glen, though not the sheep, the bracken or the witch's stone that Cattrell might have seen there. What she paints is the rather eery passage through which she walks, not quite able to discern the exit or the distance to the mist - shrouded hill beyond. This is Crawick, but it is also Cattrell's memory of the walk through Crawick, hardly looking at the ground beneath her as she makes her way through the thick, damp air.
In this still and spectral painting, vapour and substance flow into one another until it becomes hard to tell where the landscape meets the sky. There are no visible lines, no obvious brushmarks. Cattrell uses the softest badger-hair brushes, which leave no trace of themselves behind. Slowly and patiently she applies washes of oil to the canvas, thin veils of colour so transparent they could almost be watercolour. Her paint imitates the translucence of misty air.
In 1995, Louise Cattrell took this self-effacement to its extreme with a work called Muir. There were no visible marks in the picture at all; the ghostly paint seemed to have materialised on the canvas from nowhere. But for its title - a geographic tip-off- this could be seen as an abstract work celebrating the voluptuous beauty of paint, not place. The picture was scaled to the painter's own height and arm-span, but there was no other evidence of her physical presence. Since then, drawing has crept back into her paintings, which are now so huge they embrace and engulf you.
All pictures must succeed both at a distance and in close-up, especially those on a grand scale. Walk up to the enormous Martinmas and you see how minutely she animates the wild blue yonder with a hundred other colours. This is very much how the eighteenth century Scottish poet James Thomson saw the heavens:
'the grand ethereal bow
Shoots up immense; and every hue unfolds,
In fair proportion running from the red
To where the violet fades into the sky.'
Stand back from the canvas, on the other hand, and you experience that heady sense of scudding vastness as when you lie on your back staring up at the sky.
In Berwick-upon-Tweed, where Louise Cattrell has recently had an artist's residency, the sky vaults high over a city perched above the bright river as it meets the sea. In a series of spectacularly beautiful paintings, Cattrell has married these elements so you cannot distinguish the water from the air. She is still working in the studio, but released from London, the coastal light and colour surge through her paintings with new freedom.
In Storm, a flurry of gull-white brushmarks and squalls of dark oil orchestrate some high drama at sea-or is it the sky? There are passages of liquid blue, but also airy veils of powdery pink. Where the shipwreck would be in a conventional picture is a vortex of motion instead, the fracas of fast-changing elements. Cattrell needs no boat or deluge or wave: this is a storm of paint.
It is hard enough for an artist to make material the insubstantial - spume, fog, wind, vapour.
Cattrell achieves all these things without even securing them around a central motif. Like Cézanne, she thinks in paint, considering the whole surface above the component parts. Like him, she is fascinated by the way a single mark can skew a picture.
When Cézanne finally finished a portrait of his dealer Vollard, after more than a hundred sittings, Vollard asked why two little spots on his left hadn't been painted in. Cézanne replied that 'if he had just put something there haphazardly, he would have had to have started the whole painting again beginning with that spot.'
Cattrell takes as much painstaking care to balance every brushmark. The rust-red ribs emerging from the mist in Sandstell float audaciously off-centre near the top of the canvas - a spit of rock, perhaps, in the kingdom of the air. The painting is choreographed around this ambiguity, which is also embodied in the title. A stell may be a supporting framework, a plantation ar a deep pool where the net-fishing takes place. Sandstell, of course, may equally be a remembered place.
Every painter faces the paradoxical challenge of representing the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. Louise Cattrell goes further, introducing a glimpse of infinity into her art. This is supremely the case in Hallowstell, one of the finest works to come from her residency at Berwick.
Here, she makes the colours soar: Lemon Yellow, Violet Grey, Baroque Red swirl and glide on the canvas, a rhetoric of effects that suggest ocean, sky and radiant space. There is no foreground, no background, no apparent limit bar the canvas edge. Like Turner lashed to the ship's mast or Cézanne clambering up the baked rock of Mont St. Victoire, Cattrell conveys the adventure of being there herself within this billowing expanse, not watching as from some safe vantage point miles away.
In this, Louise Cattrell has collapsed the old tradition of landscape painting, in which the viewer stands with the artist examining the scene from a distance. You share the vitality of her imagination as she recreates her sensations in the sinuous flow of richly hued paint. The result is exhilarating. To stand in front of this work of art is to be breathtaken and uplifted, as though at the summit of a mountain climb.