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Selma Parlour: Upright Animal

Pi Artworks, curated by Sacha Craddock.  5 Jan – 10 Feb 2018

Review by Paul Carey-Kent, January 2018

Selma Parlour has been exhibiting her rigorous yet alluring geometric abstractions for several years, and one was short-listed for the John Moores prize in 2016. This, the first solo show by a London artist in the four-year history of the prominent London and Istanbul-based gallery’s Eastcastle Street space, is her biggest and most varied yet, with 23 paintings, all from 2017, ranging from 23 x 33cm to 222 x 160cm in size. All, however, retain Parlour’s trademark vocabulary of geometric frames rendered through, in her words, “soft films of oil on linen” in which “the literal transparency of colour borrows from the white primer beneath so that the colour glows, as if lit from behind”.  

That colour has broadened considerably, with previously favoured pastel hues alternating with neon-bright swatches and black and white monochromes. These are the eponymous Upright Animal series, the three of which are sufficiently striking to make me wonder whether a pared-back, more austere show of just that series might have had maximum radical impact.  Those ‘humans’ are, appropriately, the height of the artist stretching up, yet their title is initially puzzling, as they look neither human nor animalistic. Perhaps matters are not so simple… and, indeed, all of Parlour’s paintings prove to enact a multiplicity of dialogues between opposing states, giving their would-be-straightforward geometries an unexpected dynamism.

The title ‘Upright Animal’ suggests how the organic shapes of biology lie behind the apparent purity of the geometry – how the mathematical truths of measurement and angles are here thanks to the human impulse of their creation.  At first very little of the human is visible, but on closer inspection there are many signs of the artist’s hand – in degrees of shading, playful acceptance of some accidental-looking effects, and the variable overlapping of veiled layers. Far from being mechanical, the transparency of Parlour’s technique actually reveals the decision-making in her process.

Invented Vocabulary I, 2017. oil on linen, 61x51cm mini. Courtesy Pi Artworks

Detail shot, Compile. Courtesy Pi Artworks

Then there’s the back and forth between abstract and figurative. Previously, Parlour’s work has looked like paintings of paintings installed in ambiguous spaces – meta-painting of a sort. This body of work seems to have zoomed in on the frames of those paintings so that they look – somehow – both more representational and more abstract: more representational through the suggestion of such architectural details as mouldings or cornices; more abstract, as ‘complete shapes‘, which could have indicated frames or computer screens, no longer appear, and painterly effects come to the surface. True, the mid-sized Invented Vocabulary series coalesce around triangles, but they don’t have the natural figurative readings of rectangles. The smallest paintings, clustered together, are presented by title as Detail Shots. They – if paintings may be granted agency – seek to compensate for their small scale and limited fragments of form through burning fluorescence of colour. A sub-plot to that abstract-figurative ambiguity is how some edges are ‘clean’, as one suggested plane abuts another; while others are ‘dirty’, with smudges of what might be shading. Is the difference representational, indicating the depths of three dimensional planes? Or are those contrasts decided by what works in abstract terms?

Invented Vocabulary V, 2017. oil on linen, 61x51cm mini. Courtesy Pi Artworks

Detail shot, Memory I, 2017, oil on linen, 30x23cm. Courtesy Pi Artworks

As mention of both the layering of computer screens and the bevelling of wooden mouldings such as dado rails suggests, the chronological setting is also hard to pin down. There is a retro-futurist aesthetic which allows us to read the old (panelling, traditional framing – though Parlour doesn’t frame her paintings), against the newer (more modern or brutalist architectural details or the online world seem equally present). So it is that, if computer graphics are hinted at, they are probably not the latest. They might rather be a throwback to the futures of former times as their look comes back into fashion.

Screen and architecture are, of course, very different spaces – and different again from the literal flatness allied to implied space of the painting itself.  That may well be Parlour’s primary to and fro – between the wall and the painting on it, the illusional space and its denial; between how the paintings read spatially if taken as abstract, or if as figurative. And then we have to consider that these painting of possible architectures are placed in a real architectural space with which they interact in turn…

Compile time II, 2017, oil on linen, 150x120cm mini. Courtesy Pi Artworks

Compile time III, 2017, oil on linen, 150x160cm mini. Courtesy Pi Artworks

There’s also a back and forth between part and whole. Parlour’s previous use of what could be images of full frames is now merely implied by what look like photographic crops of them. Complicating that, the Compile Time series are divided into sections of up to four parts, crisply enough to make me wonder whether they were conjoined sections. That turns out to be a faked move, but one which ratchets up the dialogue between part and whole. The paradoxical idea comes to mind that these paintings are details of themselves: rather as Magritte claimed “this is not a pipe”, Parlour might be claiming, in an attractive contradiction, that “this is not a complete painting”. As Andy Parkinson has put it “the hint at referential content is always self-referential, bringing us back to the painting itself”. (1)

That paradoxical aspect is, I think, where Parlour is at her most original. The other ambiguities have been more widely explored, and are perhaps most notably exploited and subverted in recent practice by Tomma Abts, with  whose work Parlour’s has much in common. That said, Parlour explores and combines those concerns in her own way and with seductive intelligence. There is plenty here for eye and brain.

Paul Carey-Kent (2)

(1) in Patterns That Connect, 2017

(2) with thanks to Clare Mitten and Emma Cousin for perceptive comments at the opening

Installation shot,  Courtesy Pi Artworks