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CLAERWEN JAMES 16 MAY - 23 JUNE, 2018

FLOWERS GALLERY 21 CORK STREET, LONDON W1S 3LZ


Claerwen James revisits her subjects – almost always photographs of serious young girls – and paints them again with quiet adjustments. Three of the four faces included in her sixth solo show have appeared in previous exhibitions, one of them is new. James is not repeating herself. She paints from photographs, re-lifting, revising, re-casting a facial expression and physical pose originally caught on camera. In doing so she challenges herself and her public to look again at the unknowing knowingness of children on the threshold of adult worlds. Her paintings are echo chambers, their frames portals that lead back to the viewer’s own childhood, and forward to the children we love and misunderstand as adults. But between these two there is a beautiful ornate gate, the flat surface, the moment frozen in time, the barrier between then and now that James paints. One of the faces James paints is her own when young. Girl 10, from her 2010 show, reappears now, in the same anxious yet determined balletic pose. Her hands, already long-fingered and strong, a future painter’s hands, are held elegantly but protectively in front of her narrow hips. She stares calmly, even coldly, out from the canvas, proud of her lithe body and guarding it. ‘Girl 10’ was cropped above the knees, throwing emphasis onto the torso enclosed in a severe black leotard. The new versions are from further away, the leotard has softened to pink, the child’s legs enclosed in bright orange-red tights are more vulnerable, the knees almost the widest part and the feet not yet arranged in first position, still slightly untidy and resistant to the rules of classical ballet. The clothes, the background, the perspective change, but the face, paper-doll like, remains the same. Another of the faces James paints is her daughter’s. In looser clothes, but repeating the same soft palette, a blond girl holds a red ukulele across her body. She has stopped or hasn’t started to play. Her expression is quiet and remote, not resentful, not quite contemptuous, but self-contained and indifferent. The adults who bought her the ukulele, who will delight in hearing her play it, are very far away. This is one of the ways James banishes sentimentality from her paintings of children. Their purpose is to haunt not please. The same girl in another painting is aged by a headscarf. She wears a traditional ballet dress that is slightly too big for her, layers of light net falling from her tiny waist. One long outstretched arm is supported by the other as though its own strength isn’t quite enough, and a butterfly has settled on her delicate fingers. But the girl looks past it, ignoring its beauty and symbolism. Her thoughts about what her life is and what it will become are inscrutable. A lepidopterist like Nabokov might pin the butterfly down; together with the prepubescent girl, it has already been captured and recaptured by photographer and artist. And yet both girl and butterfly are set free again inside the painting. Another girl wears a stiffer dress that looks like it has been stuck or ironed on, and in a gesture old beyond her years, she clasps her neck as though that too were slightly stiff.


She looks puzzled, a little worried, as though she can see her future and the struggles it will bring, but is still doll-like in her flat dress. This painting is a new version of Girl with Pale Hair 3, from James’s 2014 exhibition. Black tights have been replaced by bare legs and vulnerable feet, the background is slightly lighter, the dress a bit sharper, but the face remains the same. In returning to a small number of subjects and slightly modifying them each time, James recalls Gwen John. Like John, James works in closely related tones and her paintings are sometimes characterised as sad. Inward would be a more accurate description. James’s paintings of children are not exactly spiritual, but they are other-worldly: there to remind us that it is not enough to have once been a child to understand children. Children often know things they don’t know they know, or shouldn’t know, and when they grow up they forget. It takes someone of James’s painterly powers to depict that mysterious knowledge. Ruth Scurr Cambridge, March 2018


The figures in Claerwen James’s paintings are in many ways just ordinary girls. It’s true that they are not laughing or exuberant, but they hardly seem ill-treated or undernourished either. They are calm. Their clothes are either pretty in themselves or are of the kind that children like to wear. Yet each figure seems to give off an air of patient acceptance, as though she were resigned to some fate unknown to us. They all look as though they have experienced things that we have not; they are at a vulnerable age, but look old beyond their years. Taken as a group, they could be a class from a special school that deals with a rare, not necessarily traumatic, condition. Part of it is manifestly to do with growing up. The figures carry a sense of their future selves in them. The fair, browneyed child [in the pale blue dress] can seem any age between seven and twenty-five, depending on the angle that you glimpse the left hand held to her neck, as a mother’s might be, in boredom or social modesty. What she lacks is a grown-up’s knowing expression, seeking affirmation from the company. The dark-haired girl is an old head on young shoulders and her hands seem to be guarding her ovaries, already in place at her young age. The girl with the outstretched left arm holds a butterfly, fully formed, as she will herself soon be. The composition of the paintings is serene, but it is not static. The skinny legs and puffed-out tutus suggest activity and fun – though there will be no dancing until the child has stopped contemplating the butterfly. Nothing could be much jollier than a bright red ukulele, but in only one painting is the girl attempting to play it; in the others she is accommodating herself to its shape or perhaps to the idea of music. She may simply be wondering what sort of figure she cuts. And there are no strings or tuning pegs, so there will be no sound. All the paintings seem to catch a moment of indecision between the idea and the reality, the instant at which, in T.S.Eliot’s words, there ‘falls the Shadow’. A dance suspended, an adult gesture without grown-up expression, a soundless instrument: a hinge between pure childhood and the inevitable clamour of what comes next… Claerwen James’s technique is exactly suited to this state of affairs. The stillness of Vermeer is evoked in the blue headscarf, the dance studio of Degas in the tutu; and there is a suggestion of Picasso’s harlequins and pierrots. James’s years as a Slade student can be seen in the plumb-line precision with which the figures are conceived, though it is pushed hard by something more instinctive, almost rebellious in the way they are treated. The paint surface is in some places deliberately made flat, but only to draw the eye to other parts of the canvas.


What secrets do these children hold? What have they seen that we have not? To me, these figures do have a quality that is unsettling, and it may be something to do with silence. I have seldom seen pictures so mute. Put your ear to the canvas: listen. None of these girls will make a sound. Yet, like all good art, these paintings happily escape a simple explanation. Beyond their taciturnity, they seem to touch on something mysterious about the way that humans have developed. A genetic chance (unless you are a Christian, in which case it was the Fall) burdened us with selfawareness and the knowledge that we die. A trillion other tiny mutations might have been selected to produce a slightly different human. Perhaps these girls are us; perhaps they are what we might have been – or will turn into yet. And if that seems too fanciful, there is much else to beguile you in the beauty of the form and colour, the sheer pleasure of looking at the real made slightly unfamiliar, therefore new. Sebastian Faulks, 2018


Girl in a Leotard Against a Dark Sky, 2018 Oil on canvas, 163 x 99 cm, 64 1/8 x 39 in


Girl in a Leotard Against Pale Blue, 2018 Oil on canvas, 162.5 x 142 cm, 64 x 55 7/8 in


Girl in a White Dress With a Butterfly, 2018 Oil on canvas, 163 x 99 cm, 64 1/8 x 39 in


Girl With Pale Hair and a Pale Green Dress, 2018 Oil on canvas, 162.5 x 116.5 cm, 64 x 45 7/8 in


Summer Painting, Girl With Pale Hair, 2018 Oil on canvas,163 x 99 cm, 64 1/8 x 39 in


Girl in Pink and red Against Turquoise, 2018 Oil on canvas,162.5 x 116.5 cm, 64 x 45 7/8 in


Girl With a Butterfly, Pink Against Blue, 2018 Oil on canvas, 163 x 99 cm, 64 1/8 x 39 in


Girl With a Ukulele 1, 2018 Oil on canvas, 163 x 99 cm, 64 1/8 x 39 in


Girl With a Ukulele 2, 2018 Oil on canvas, 163 x 99 cm, 64 1/8 x 39 in


Girl with a Ukulele 3, 2018 Oil on canvas, 163 x 99 cm, 64 1/8 x 39 in


Girl With a Ukulele 4, 2018 Oil on canvas,163 x 99 cm, 64 1/8 x 39 in


CLAERWEN JAMES EDUCATION 2003 - 2004 Graduate Drawing Year, Prince’s Drawing School, London 1999 - 2003 The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London BA Fine Art 1998 Doctorate in Cell Biology and Cytology, University of London 1993 BA Hons Zoology, New College, Oxford SOLO EXHIBITIONS 2015 2013 2010 2008 2006 2004

Flowers Cork Street, London Flowers Cork Street, London Flowers, New York Flowers Cork Street, London Flowers Cork Street, London ‘Artist of the Day’ at Flowers Central, London

PUBLICATIONS 2015 Claerwen James, Flowers, London, ISBN 978-1-906412-67-8 Edition of 500, foreword by Adam Gopnik 2013 Claerwen James, Flowers, London, ISBN 978-1-906412-58-6 2010 Claerwen James, Flowers, London, ISBN 978-1-906412-32-6 Edition of 500, foreword by Anthony Lane 2008 Claerwen James, Flowers, London, ISBN 978-1-906412-07-4 Edition of 500, foreword by Rachel Cooke 2006 Claerwen James, Flowers, London, ISBN 101-902945-75-1 Edition of 500, foreword by Francis Spufford

Claerwen James Catalogue 2018  
Claerwen James Catalogue 2018