Louise Cattrell

Louise Cattrell

The paintings of Louise Cattrell haunt the imagination with their mysterious beauty. They appear as timeless as the landscapes they depict, and yet somehow distinctly contemporary. Each work is as exquisitely painted as anything by JMW Turner, and seems to show a world that still looks just as must have done in his day – the unchanging rocks, seas, hills and skies of the long ago past – but there is always another dimension to Cattrell’s art. She is a romantic for the twenty-first century.

This has something to do with the extraordinary expansiveness of her work. Every image - no matter how vast or small - opens up to reveal endless space: the fathomless ocean of the sky, the measureless volumes of the sea and the air that circulates between them. All figurative painters face the paradox of representing the three-dimensional world on a piece of two-dimensional canvas but Cattrell goes further, introducing a glimpse of infinity into her work.

A painting like Ascent takes you to a mountaintop arena from which the high blue sky may be viewed - diaphanous, cloud-tinged and unthinkably boundless. The sight of it is thrilling, something like flying itself; but there is an enigma to this image. It seems to put you on the spot, but where is this spot? Where are you - where is the painter - standing? There is mist below and vapour above, and the sense of this vast and airy vision is of being actually airborne yourself. The place is real enough, but the image is like something from a dream.

Cattrell takes this even further with a big work like Hallowstell. Now there is no ground or horizon line to orientate the mind and eye, and no index of far or even middle distance. We might be looking up at the sky, or we might be right there within it. Cattrell makes her colours soar (look closely: there are always many more than first meet the eye) so that Violet Grey, Baroque Red, Ultramarine and Titanium White swirl and flow on the canvas. The effects conflate suggestions of ocean, sky and climactic drama. Not even the edge of the canvas can limit the sense of a wild and billowing expanse.

This painting was made in a large studio in the coastal town of Berwick in Northumberland. Cattrell is not out there in the landscape as she paints, but indoors in successive studios - first in Scotland, where she was born in 1957; latterly in London, which has been her principal home since attending the Royal College of Art in 1980. Everything she paints comes from memory, from the recollection of natural phenomena revealed on a long walk, travelling through a landscape, or at the summit of a hill. Hers is an art of sustained memories, not of single transient images.

Occasionally, a painting may even be inspired by more than one epiphany. The strange building hoisted high on a rock in Tower, for instance, comes from seeing two dramatically far-flung outposts - a religious retreat clinging to the edge of a precipitous hillside in Portugal, and the darkly isolated tower of Smailholm in the Scottish borders. Smailholm, described by Sir Walter Scott, who returned to it compulsively, as 'standing stark and upright like a warden', is a tower you come upon almost by accident, so unpredictable is the terrain. Cattrell's painting fuses the astonishment of seeing both places in one spectral vision, somewhere between reality and hallucination.

Light breaks mysteriously through the scene, but also through the painting itself, arriving on the surface like a misty seaside haar or the shimmer of heat on a summer's road. And time appears to be passing in the picture, too, as the grain of the canvas emerges through the levels of paint: the past materialising in the present.

Lately, Cattrell's work has come to recall the natural towers of the landscape - rocks, promontories and abrupt hills like the one seen through veils of silvery circumambient air in the painting Law (a Scottish word for such hills). What makes these works so different from the romanticism of the past is the embodied sense of passing through the landscape, of passing through time, of moving towards something in the distance that seems always just slightly out of reach.

These paintings express the way we experience such places, as much as what we actually see - the way we come upon the surprise of a sceptred isle, a vertical peak in mist or a miniature loch high among the hills, the bright sky mirrored in its waters. The eye does not take it all in at once; the revelation unfolds itself slowly. And this is the character of Cattrell's own work: slowly made, gradually evolving in the studio and just as gradually working its spell upon the viewer.

Rock is a mesmerising picture. The eponymous rock floats in a magical world of opalescent air and vaporous sea, motionless down the centuries and yet seeming to hover in the light. Although it derives from two real geological phenomena, this could be the island from the Tempest, a pearl thrown into the ocean, a place to which you could swim except that it would appear more remote with every stroke.

Go close and you can scarcely see how the painting is made, so subtle is its brushwork. Vapour and substance flow into one another, form and colour merge in the translucent oils worked with softest badger-hair brushes. The rock's reflection is strong and yet absolutely intangible. It seems to lie both in and on the water, just as the delicate blue light behind the rock seems to come from close up and yet infinitely far away.

And then the picture suddenly changes - to the viewer's surprise. As the ambient daylight shifts in the gallery, so the painting also changes, passing through something like seasons or moods. One moment it is wintry white, another it seems to take on the promise of early summer, heat scintillating in the glowing air. Just as the world is endlessly altered by the ever-changing atmosphere of climate and light, so the painting repeats this phenomenon. The light rises, the painting changes, giving more of itself, as if alive to its very surroundings.

Laura Cumming
Chief Art Critic, The Observer