Brendan Prendeville

The Essence of Vision: Recent Paintings by Gina Medcalf


As I walked towards Gina Medcalf’s studio, which stands among a cluster of light industrial buildings alongside a railway line, my attention was caught by the light lying on a high curved concrete wall shoring up the railway embankment. It gleamed there for anyone to see; only, however, in so far as someone might be there to see it, and even so contingent upon its momentarily engaging the attention of that passer-by. We do not ordinarily see light, for though light is the means whereby things appear – or, rather, precisely for that reason – we see the things and not it, as if it were a tremendously discreet servant. Stepping inside the studio, I saw on the wall a row of three canvases, each a vertical configuration of colours rippling through each other, as fleetingly as light itself.

Looking at Medcalf’s paintings, we will recognize readily their descent from a North American tradition of painterly abstraction, yet not through any particular mark of indebtedness and with this positive difference: they are modest in scale. What they inherit, or rather what the painter carries forward and reinterprets, is of course abstractness and also an aspiration that the image be wholly identified with the configured surface. This apparently merely formal aim indeed amounts to an aspiration, if we regard the interidentification of the figural and the material as needing to be achieved, given too that innovation and renewal depend on the scope and fertility of a particular figural invention. In these paintings, there are two basic figures, identified respectively with two closely-related technical means – two ways of drawing with paint. In one series a predetermined colour sequence is laid, in pools of acrylic paint, along the top edge of a canvas lying stretched on the floor. Using 3 brooms, their heads bracketed together end to end, the painter draws the colours down in a curve and then pulls back up with a straight, vertical stroke. In the other series, three vertical figures are painted over a coloured ground, masked near to the top and bottom edges. Again, an initial curved stroke – now with a brush – is followed by a vertical, for each figure.

It is with respect to the former series in particular that I think of light. There is a transparency of the colours to a white ground, and a breaking-open at times of that ground (as in one of the Dream House paintings) and more generally a certain iridescence. The genesis of the series is revealing, for the inaugural works – as they so appeared to the painter in retrospect – were painted on glass, in vertical juxtaposed bands of colour, the resulting acrylic film being then peeled off and applied to paper. Speaking with reference to the Dream House series, Medcalf mentioned to me a particular experience of light, a window seen from her bed, ‘a long, vertical window with opaque stick-on stuff that does amazing things to the light.’

It was to very comparable experiences that Monet and the Impressionists gave the name ‘nature’, meaning light and colour in their reciprocal and fluctuating relationship to vision. This is however a potentially misleading association, at least in part, for Medcalf emphatically resists illusion. It is so marked a resistance as to be of emotional significance. In illustration, she cited her reaction to a description of a glass-bottomed boat, used to gaze into underwater life in the waters off Tahiti (found, incidentally, in a text on Matisse’s Oceania): what, for some, might convey enchantment, in her case ‘gives me the creeps’. She wants her paintings to afford ‘a secure place for looking’, and for her this decidedly does not imply illusory depth. There is an evident insistence here, in both emotional and aesthetic terms, a desire that in the flux of colour there should be ‘stability’ – her word; a stability she paradoxically seeks by putting it at hazard. Consider again her procedure. She lays out colours in a certain order, one, we should add, that she retains for an entire series and that she derives from a particular source (variously in Frize, Matisse, Owens, Poons and Vuillard), and that she patiently works out in colour charts. The white, gessoed ground is to be ‘smooth as a skating-rink’, the paint technically prepared so as to stand sufficiently on the surface and so as to prevent bleeding of colours into one another. After the initial curved stroke there comes the vertical one that unpredictably modifies it – and to this she gives a quite unexpected name: the ‘correction’.

It is wonderfully unexpected because on the face of it everything was already so much in order. Is this not, surely, a stroke that mars all, that spoils the plot? Admittedly, many paintings are discarded in the process, yet it is only through this marring, the disturbing of deliberated order, the upsetting of what we might assume to be the more evidently expressive stroke by an apparently impersonal one, that a painting will come about, at once through intention and beyond it, in the unknown. It will be an event the painter will recognize when it happens.

Inherent in such a process as this is a certain suspense: a long, premeditated preparation followed by a relatively rapid if measured action. Will there be anything to see? If there is emotion at the end, it was also there at the origin, for the initial choice of colour sequence depended on feeling, an emotional response by the painter to colour seen in a particular painting. If this is the note inwardly held – radically subjective, yet also quite specific – it needs objective collaboration (or corroboration) in the form of the final stroke, if it is to resound in the world. ‘I like the rule’, Braque wrote, ‘that corrects emotion’.

Something must appear; will it? Such is the suspense in which every painter is held. In Gina Medcalf’s case, that suspense has been gratuitously heightened, for in the year 2000 she was diagnosed with macular degeneration and faced the prospect of ultimate loss of sight. It was at that point that she embarked on the series of paintings now before us. Happily, advances in drug treatment have meant that her eye condition is now under control, but we can readily appreciate the emotional impact of living under such a threat, an impact anyone might feel, but a painter more intensely still. Urgent emotions underlay this episode of painting, and we might see in these works a cleaving to the irreducible, in pursuit of the essence of painting and of vision.

The painter’s own experience, her peril, touches us through her work, makes contact with our own need, in our fragility, to renew our sense of the essential, and to face and register our fear, anger, and hope. These paintings summon differing emotional responses. After the luminous Dream House came the darker Unground series, governed by a palette of earthy reds, textured to a certain opacity. Out of that prevalent redness, a blue flares. Here is what I wrote down as the painter was talking about this series: ‘I thought the Dream House pictures were quite cool, relatively, in construction and feeling. These are very much more…well it’s a hell of a colour that red - it’s so demanding, so demanding. And the blue just about helps you not to think it’s about murder.’ As does the green too, she added, in her preferred painting in this group (and mine). ‘For me it does express an intense feeling of murder and the coming through that feeling, not holding onto it.’ This suggests, in the enactment of the painting, a catharsis in the classic sense.

I was moved by this, naturally, but equally moved to see the small cards on which Medcalf had patiently, methodically, set out colour sequences for each painting, those for the brush stroke paintings being on the respective coloured grounds. Let’s recall the two ends of the process, an inaugurating emotion and an emotion of recognition, and the immense care needed, and pains taken, in the passage between. Expression is not as we often imagine it, a kind of outpouring, it rather arrives as if from outside, to be felt when it comes. What is essential is that the painter sustain an intensity of critical attention and watchfulness. Where, as here, it is a question of attaining to essentials, the margins of perception are especially fine. After starting the series of paintings with triple upright forms, the painter recognized affinities with Chardin’s still lifes of dead rabbits hanging on a wall, and this not only owing to similarities of configuration. It was as if she had responded unconsciously to the elusiveness of Chardin’s achievement in paint and colour, as to a challenge: ‘how did he come to that moment of what we see?’ The grounds of these three-figure paintings are fragile, indeterminate: for example, a colour compounded of ultramarine, orange and white, a teasingly mixed identity, as often too with Chardin’s tones, an outcome in his case, the painter considers, of experience in the layering of pastel.

With these paintings, in contrast to the broom-swept series, Medcalf has needed on each occasion to make several distinct choices: as to the configuration of each double stroke, the sequencing of actions, the proximity of forms to each other, and so on. The figures stand individually, and in relation: ‘I was an only child’. There’s the emotional spring, but we don’t need to know that to feel, in front of these paintings, the pathos of relation, reduced to its tenuous essentials. In one canvas, the threesome stand, in very transparent colour, over a lilac-ish ground, yellow very thin between warm brown left and green-blue right. That is exactly as I noted it to myself then, trying to find words for the colours as seen, adding ‘mingling-separation’. But ‘what we see never resides in what we say’ as Foucault observed with respect to Velázquez. It’s of the essence of vision that we have to be there to see. Vision epitomises our time-bound mortality: a famous memento mori by another seventeenth-century Spanish painter, Valdes Leal, bears the inscription in ictu oculi, ‘in the blinking of an eye’.

Light as we see it, when we see it, is a flux, and mood as we feel it is inherently changeable. It needs to have its moment, and to end. From Unground, Medcalf turned to Matisse, and to a Tangier picture called Amido the Moroccan, and a more decorative palette. The eye, the painter’s eye, seeks light but also darkness, visits all extremes. ‘Only an eye’?: where there’s an eye there’s a mind, as Cézanne wrote, and where there’s a mind there is wider human involvement, a world. This is so even when painting is reduced, as here, to its essentials, to fine tolerances. In this very purification, the painter embraces imperfection, on her own terms. In a famous and tragic case discussed by the scientist R.L. Gregory, a man who was born blind had his sight restored. This gift, far from elating its recipient, brought about depression and decline, for the man – highly intelligent – had pictured to himself a world whose pristine radiance was not matched by the flawed reality now before his eyes: the chewing gum on the pavement, say. Some schools of painting have gone for the flaws, others for beauty. Caravaggio was ‘born to ruin painting’, said Poussin, a protagonist of beauty. Yet in Poussin we find a man killed by a serpent, and Chardin found beauty in carrion. Medcalf uses extreme rigour in her intensive aesthetic pursuit, yet it’s the marring that makes the work; what we ultimately find when all is pared back to an essence is, tied to our very imperfection, our human need for beauty.


© Gina Medcalf and Brendan Prendeville