Flowers Gallery presents new work by British figurative painter Claerwen James.
Quietly enigmatic, James’ paintings of youthful female subjects are not portraits in the usual sense of the word. Painting from photographs, she frequently works with anonymous images, scouring car boot sales and junk shops for magazines and film stills, alongside her own photographed images and family pictures. With the identity of each subject considered unimportant, she denies the instinct to try to make sense of the captured photographic moment in concrete narrative terms.
As Ruth Scurr writes in the catalogue essay, three of the four figures in the present exhibition are revisited and modified from past works, focusing on subtle adjustments to limited subject matter, in the manner of Gwen John. Their faces are presented again in her latest paintings, according to Scurr, to “[challenge] herself and her public to look again at the unknowing knowingness of children on the threshold of adult worlds.”
While the sitter’s gaze is directed towards an unseen photographer, James sets herself at a deliberate remove from this exchange, responding to the frozen photographic record and investing it with a wholly imaginative second life. For James, these captured moments are fraught with a sense of time slipping away, forming an “impassable gulf” between the past and present. Her subjects are often children, whose natural state of imminent transformation and growth highlights the potency of the captured fragment of time. Adam Gopnik has described her paintings as being “like X-rays of child potentialities”, for which any manner of stories could be invented.
The alert facial expressions and arrested gestures of the children are ambiguous, seeming at times to be pensive and lost in private worlds, and at others to be speaking out, their messages trapped within the ‘gulf’ of then and now. Gopnik says: “The tension between the scrupulous observational honesty of her hands and faces and the aerated beauty of her touch is what gives her pictures their mystery and their life.”
Echoes from art history resonate throughout her paintings, and James cites Corot, Degas and Picasso’s early blue and rose periods as unfailing sources of “ideas and provocations”. These echoes can be found in the silvery tones of her waif-like figures and the quietly radiating coloured grounds of the empty spaces they occupy.Girl in a Leotard Against Pale Blue, 2018. (c) Claerwen James, courtesy Flowers Gallery