In the realm of the senses
By Corinna Lotz
Is it by chance that the word "tone" refers to both colour and sound? Sarah Medway's recent paintings seem to blur the distinction between the seen and the heard, criss-crossing the boundaries of the senses.
It is not by chance that they have musical titles - Soundscape, Ambient, Melodious Plot. Medway puts down dabs, touches of paint like a pianist running her fingers over a keyboard. Each touch elicits a note - a whole-note, half-note, quaver or a trill, as the colours are played.
Medway, Soundscape, 2001
The myriad of strokes on the canvas encourage the eye to roam through a range of tones. The colours of Soundscape for example, are largely tonal, evocative of Morandi's milky palette. Close-up we see the detail of each mark. The physical movement of the hand applying the brush to the surface is registered by the feathered edge of each block, where the brush or palette knife leaves the canvas.
Admixtures of white pigment give us variations on a theme: warm light grey, stone, taupe, tawny beige, caffe latte and cappuccino. The staccato dabs butt up against each other, warm colours advancing and cooler colours receding. Then we find lemon, and the horizontal traces of bright pink oil-stick, like a melody running in counterpoint to the rhythm of the whole.
Viewed from a distance Soundscape acquires a pearly effect, light radiating from the centre, and reflecting on the lower edge, as though in water. Soundscape, Impulse and Veil are in a minor key, all light rococo palette and are possibly some of her most delicate works to date.
Medway, Mineral Kingdom, 2001
Mineral Kingdom is more like rock, ash grey underscored by burning lava. The strident orange base cools down at the surface, with layers of blue-greys, black and touches of white. "I had to subdue the orange," Medway says, "by adding layers of shades of grey on a loaded palette knife."
On the surface we find light flicks of white and orange which enliven the cool greys like tongues of fire. Puddles of orange at the base of the canvas anchor the moving curtain of brushstrokes and give entry into an alien space, "a new space", in the artist's own words.
Linden green, orange and blue combine in Melodious Plot to create yet another mood, with a more fluid, high summer feel. The colours and forms evoke, but never describe, a landscape or a garden, with hanging flowers and fruit.
The transition from depth to surface, from tiny dab to larger brushstroke, the build-up of layers, the contrasting pairs of colours - all these create a magnetic field. They are the parts which make up the whole, the unique space which each painting holds.
The particular, individual, finite identity of each mark is connected by hundreds, perhaps thousands of others to infinity, moving to the edge of the canvas, around its edge and beyond. Because there is no "absolute" reference of scale to which the eye and brain can relate, we look into an infinity of reflections within a space that develops its own logic as the eye moves in and out.
Here we find the wonderful advantage possessed by this kind of colour abstraction. Impression and expression are fused. The energy of applying the brush registers the emotion and thoughts of the painter who controls and deploys the brush, just as the violinist's bow is drawn over the strings.
Medway, Narcissus, 2001
The woven, interlocking grid of the larger canvases melts into softer, more organic forms in Narcissus and Impulse. Elongated skeins of paint are applied with a rounded brush and are drawn to a central space or ranged around an equator, like fronds, tadpoles or spermatozoa. Instead of a light centre, Narcissus looks into an unreflective depth. Wavy strands of smoky blue, contrasted by thick dabs of yellow, cling like weeds around the water's edge. The allusions to plant forms are just as quickly denied by the formal patterning.
Medway picks up a strand of tradition, best summarised by the Symbolist poet and art critic Jules Laforgue, theorising in 1883. He believed that Impressionism had advanced human perception to capture the sensuous movement of the "perpetually changing symphony of the exterior world". Impression and expression are indeed joined in a "spark of identity between the subject and object", as the poet wrote.
The artist determines the colours and forms which go on to acquire their own logic and movement. The viewer can navigate through this brave new world, rediscovering the freshness of sensation modulated through the artistic personality. Medway seeks to express fundamental aspects of the human condition - "what it is to be alive and what it means to look at infinite space". This is the continuing legacy of painting at the cutting edge - advancing human understanding and the enjoyment of several worlds - that outside of us, the complexities of the individual personality and the interface between the two.
This article was first published in the catalogue of Sarah Medway's exhibition at Hiscox, November 2001
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