Alison Watt: Light and Shadow

Watt’s meticulous paintings of white objects; folded paper, coiled cord, hanging cloth, are mesmerising examples of light and shadow in painting, appearing more than photographic – almost like the objects themselves are present in the room.  It is as if the cloths could be unpinned from the wall, that the coils might begin to unravel themselves.  The viewer wants to touch them, to be sure that the surfaces they are presented with really are two dimensional.  (Invigilating in the exhibition this is a comment I often hear).


Alison Watt
Paintings by Alison Watt (2018) at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal

Watt’s work refers to the relationship between a body and its surroundings, her fascination having begun when she saw a cloth left behind after a working with a life model.  She was “intrigued by the imprint left when they went away … something beautiful was created by their leaving” (Watt, 2018, p8).  Her work evokes a sense of absence of a body, an indication of a moment of life and of flesh, without a physical presence.

Watt’s contemporary paintings have their roots in the art of history:  Raphael Peale’s Venus Rising from the Sea (1822) inspired Peale (2018) and Veronica (2018), and her draping fabrics also echo earlier works such as Francisco de Zurbaran’s Saint Serapion (1628), a non-violent depiction reflecting scene of martyrdom,  in which the friar’s cloth appears unexpectedly clean and his body apparently unwounded.

Francisco de Zurbaran
The Martyrdom of St Serapion (1628)
Oil on canvas (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford)
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Watt’s coils of white (Flex, Helical and Volute) are inspired not by painting history but by photographic history, in particular the work of Canadian photographer Margaret Watkins (please see separate post).  Watt’s earlier 2015 work Archer is a darker contrast to the subtler, paler images of this year, but the entire exhibition is visually quiet, a calming experience, respite from a busy week of screens and work.

In the exhibition catalogue, curator Laura Smith writes “As a genre, still life painting is not grand, it is quiet and self-assured, often demonstrating the compassion and personality that domestic items can inspire.” (Smith, 2018, p16)


Alison Watt: A Shadow on the Blind (2018)
Kendal: Abbot Hall Art Gallery