J e s s i c a The H e r MacGuffin r i n g t o n Wendy Elia & Marguerite Horner
The MacGuffin Wendy Elia & Marguerite Horner 1 â€“ 17 July 2011 WW Gallery, London
Contents Foreword Debra Wilson & Chiara Williams
Anna McNay on The MacGuffin
Marie-Anne Mancio on Wendy Elia
Mary Rose Beaumont on Marguerite Horner
Wendy Elia Never, 2010, oil on canvas, 18 x 13cm
Foreword Debra Wilson & Chiara Williams
WW Gallery is pleased to present The MacGuffin, an exhibition of paintings by Wendy Elia and Marguerite Horner, 1st – 17th July 2011. The MacGuffin is a term associated with Hitchcock when discussing the suspense techniques in his films. Hitch described the Macguffin as a device on which to hang the tension in a film, and could be anything including money, glory, survival, victory, power, threat, or something completely unexplained. By definition the MacGuffin is nothing; it is ambiguous or indefinable and can be open to interpretation. It is the catalyst that sets a story in motion, even if, by the end of the plot, we have sometimes forgotten what it was. Whatever it is or isn’t, the MacGuffin is also present in Elia’s and Horner’s work, a deliciously dark device, something lurking, or elusive. In Elia’s work, a seductive palette is deliberately at odds with her sometimes disconcerting narratives and in Horner’s monochrome scenes, we may never be sure if the tension resides in the occasional jolts of colour, the innocuous looking pallid houses, or along the tight telephone lines running across the horizon of so many of her paintings. There is something very Hitchcockian going on in both Elia’s and Horner’s paintings, both reminiscent (in entirely different ways) of film stills. Viewing the work of both painters, one feels witness to something that has either happened or is about to happen, which evokes feelings of familiarity as well as alienation. The Uncanny, then, is a central theme for both artists. Elia and Horner themselves are as different as chalk and cheese. To meet the artists individually one would never suspect that there could ever be common ground between the two, so perhaps all the more reason to place them together. For the curators, there was clearly a common thread, that indescribable something that pulls the viewer in whilst triggering a curl of the lip or a raise of an eyebrow. WW Gallery, London, May 2011
Marguerite Horner Exit, 2011, oil on linen, 50x50cm
The MacGuffin Anna McNay
Just what is it that draws us to a work of art? What makes up stop and look, rather than pass on by oblivious? Darian Leader proposes it is not so much humans who are image-capturing devices, but rather images which are human-capturing devices: luring and deceiving are intrinsic to their nature . As Francis Bacon said to David Sylvester, painting is about setting a trap. It is all rather Frankensteinian – the creation has taken power over the creator. We are, inevitably, seduced. According to Baudrillard , seduction is not so much a demand as a challenge. The subject desires, and the object seduces. The object, however, which has traditionally been relegated to a lesser position, is seen merely as “a detour on the royal road to subjectivity.” But where is this road trying to lead us, and what does this interrupting challenge distract us from? The quest for truth and meaning? Is that what draws us in? Marguerite Horner’s grisaille landscapes certainly beggar the question of what it is they represent and why she chose to render them thus. Suggestive of American filmscapes (unsurprising perhaps, given her experience as a set and backdrop painter for the BBC), their emptiness and chilling shadows turn the American dream into more of a nightmare. The splash of red present in many is garish and unsettling. To quote Walter Benjamin : “the painting invites the spectator to contemplation, before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations.” What does he recognise? Why is it familiar? Are these places real? Where is the life? Is something awry? Freud’s early ideas about scopophilia, or the pleasure in looking, centre on this notion of an exclusion and the very fact that Leader, D (2002) Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing. Washington D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, p25 Gonzalez, L (2006) ‘Created to Lead Astray: Baudrillard’s Seduction in Contemporary Artefacts’, paper presented at the Engaging Baudrillard Conference, Swansea University, 4 – 6 September 2006, available at: http://lauragonzalez.co.uk/words/ engaging-baudrillard-conference/ Baudrillard, J (1999) Fatal Strategies. London: Pluto Press Benjamin, W (1973 ) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Hannah Arendt (ed.) Illuminations, trans. H. Zohn. Glasgow: Fontana, p1
our visual curiosity is heightened by what we do not or cannot see. Elia’s works are similarly related to the movie, many of them adaptations of film stills. Unlike Horner, whose compositions are, in fact, imagined, Elia bases her scenes on existing images. The viewer, however, can never be sure whether they are taken from a film, newsreel, or just the general subconscious. Their content is familiar, their origins less so. Once again, the tables are turned, and the spectator is challenged to ask questions of himself and about his own reality, and, in this obsessive search for truth, he runs the risk of losing this very reality, as the hyperreality of the images takes over. Hitchcock famously defined the MacGuffin as, essentially, “nothing at all” : the device or gimmick which catches the viewers’ attention and drives the plot, but, which, ultimately, has no significance of its own. In fact, to determine if something indeed is a MacGuffin, one should consider whether or not it is interchangeable. Zizek equates the MacGuffin to Lacan’s concept of the object petit a , the cause of a subject’s desire, but, itself, a void, something which can never be obtained. This, in turn, corresponds to Baudrillard’s absence of truth. But if there is no truth, no deeper meaning to be found, has the viewer not been misguidedly seduced in his search? According to Baudrillard, it is precisely the lure of seduction which leads one astray from ‘right behaviour’, ‘reality’, and ‘truth’. “To seduce is to die as reality and reconstitute oneself as illusion” – a precise summation of the process of capturing the image on canvas. He argues that seduction and interpretation – or the act of relating the known to the unknown – are opposing phenomena. The search for truth will inevitably only lead you further from it. So what exactly is it that constitutes the MacGuffin in Horner’s and Elia’s works? Is it the uncanny element of the known-but-unknown which draws the viewer in? Is it the search for a deeper meaning and truth? Or is it simply the painting itself? The works appeal to us for whatever reason, and we stop to look more closely. We are taken Truffaut, F (1969) Hitchcock. London: Panther Books, p160 Zizek, S (1991) Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press Lacan, J (1986) Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. London: Peregrine Books Baudrillard, J (1991) Seduction. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, p69
in by their appearance, in search of a hidden meaning, but the MacGuffin lies in the realisation that there isn’t necessarily any such thing, or, perhaps, in the postmodern acceptance that a painting just means what the viewer – each individual viewer – wants it to. After all, surely that’s what art and imagery is all about? It appeals to the senses; it is visually and aesthetically seductive. Much modern art has become largely conceptually driven, politically engendered, and in need of curatorial interpretation. But the works we see here are devoid of this. Not so much because they speak for themselves, but rather because they remain silent. We either like them or dislike them, but we can’t always explain why, no matter how deeply we search. In the end, does it even matter? The MacGuffin, whatever this may be, has already done its job: we have been seduced.
Wendy Elia Lolita, 2010, oil on canvas, 18 x 13cm
Wendy Elia Marie-Anne Mancio It is still with us, this naïve belief in the truth of the photograph. As I write, skeptics are clamouring for photographic proof of Osama bin Laden’s execution, as if this evidence could not be scanned (scammed), photoshopped, (super) imposed, as if an event can only occur if the camera bears witness. Wendy Elia works in series. In Half-Naked and The Visit life-size naked or semi-naked portraits of Elia’s friends and family confront our voyeurism and ask questions about painting’s relationship to authenticity and illusion; her self-portrait I Could Have Been A Contender lays her ageing body open to our scrutiny. Their content is a testament to the artist’s exploration of enforced domesticity; of the repetitive grind of work, child-rearing, care for the elderly, that creates a sense of entrapment within the home studio. The architecture and fittings of the latter – the boarded up fireplace and the laminate floor – are recurring motifs. Within those portraits lie smaller paintings: a network of allusions to familial relations, previous art works, and art history. These and Elia’s focus on the desire for escapism through mediated experiences (TV, the internet) prompted It Will Happen When You Least Expect It. This series is about the futile quest for truth and the legacy of postmodernism. Words are slippery; the title is simultaneously a threat and a promise, the old adage about finding love and the stalker’s whisper. Film stills (from Lolita, Saboteur) are juxtaposed with scenes from soap operas (EastEnders’ Little Mo stunning her abusive husband with an iron), group portraits (The Bullingdon Club), or CCTV footage (Princess Diana in the elevator of the Paris Ritz). Amid the new narratives implied through the paintings’ democratic presentation, themes emerge: child victims, female icons, acts of violence. Certain images are repeated. Here are paintings that try to act like photographs, that would defy the uniqueness of the art
Wendy Elia Til Death, 2010, oil on canvas, 18 x 13cm
object, but they fail, caught out by their own nuances. Because these works are painterly, seducing us with their high key colour palette and intimate scale, drawing us into their little worlds. If they infiltrated our consciousness as photographs, as part of the endless circulation of images sold, copied, downloaded, uploaded, overloaded…they take hold of us all over again as paintings. Even the most repellent subjects are rendered ambiguous: a terrorist morphing into Jesus, In Fidelity; the delicate stillness of hung men in Elsewhere. As Elia’s practice evolves, the smaller images demand to be enlarged, posing further questions about the correlation between painterliness and iconicity. Her painting Madeleine is Missing (2010) of Madeleine McCann’s photograph is re-translated into the largescale Missing. Sometimes an image accumulates resonances though, like dust drawn unto itself. So if Madeleine is Missing seemed poignant last year, in 2011 it risks appearing exploitative. And here’s the thing: images are unpredictable. And one day, when you’re not looking, they take you by surprise. They become iconic.
Marguerite Horner Glimpse, 2010, oil on linen, 50 x 50cm
Marguerite Horner Mary Rose Beaumont The title of one of Marguerite Horner’s paintings may be the clue to the whole body of her recent work. It is ‘Glimpse’, a view of an indeterminate group of buildings seen across a bit of urban landscape. “Yes,” I hear you say, “And?” Ah, therein lies the magic. What Marguerite does is to take a banal, unremarkable view of buildings, some trees perhaps, a road with a car moving along it, a telegraph pole bisecting it, wires looping across, and during the working process the whole scene is gradually transformed into something rich and strange. Take ‘Glimpse’ for instance. What a boring view. And yet, and yet. Somehow this dull scene, glimpsed by us as it were in passing, painted almost entirely in shades of black on a white canvas, is permeated with a radiance which seems to come from within. The touch of magic resides in the faint glow from the house on the right, a soft golden glow, as if that house contained something special, unnamed and unnameable. If this all sounds too fanciful let us turn to the earthy facts. Marguerite has deliberately restricted her palette to the minimum. She uses principally dark grey, shading into multiple possibilities of dark and light, surprising us sometimes with a touch of colour, seldom shocking enough to disturb the harmony of the composition. Except on one or two occasions, and these are truly shocking. One of these is ‘Boxed in’, a nightmare scene of urban pollution. We look across a townscape despoiled by man, by railway tracks, car parks and, worst of all, by a vast high-rise office block which overwhelms a row of modest domestic-sized houses. Marguerite has vented her anger at this atrocity by outlining it in red as if to say “Look at this horror perpetrated by greed”. Red is again used in ‘Vanitas’, a vivid slash across the lips of a woman thickly clad in a heavy coat, motoring cap and goggles, the single touch of colour bringing the woman into sharp focus. She looks angrily
Marguerite Horner Boxed In, 2010, oil on linen, 50 x 50cm
out of the picture space with her back to what have the appearance of tombstones (although they are in fact billboards) and the carefree people sitting at tables enjoying their newspapers and coffee. She seems to distance herself from life whilst fearing what the future might hold. Another painting in which the figure is pre-eminent is ‘The Counsellor’ where a comfortably rotund priest is apparently advising a rather rough-looking man whose attitude, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched, betrays doubt if not downright rejection of the proffered counsel. The backdrop to this scene is Venice, seen across the lagoon from San Giorgio Maggiore, the campanile shooting skyward above the man’s head, whilst the lower outline of the Doge’s palace frames that of the priest. There is no point in questioning the meaning of the little scene being enacted before us, any more than asking why the luxuriously- coated woman has taken such an aggressive stance. The mystery is there for us to unravel as we will. In a way the figure paintings are an aberration in Marguerite’s work. Her true vocation lies in the landscape. I see her work sitting securely in the tradition of landscape painting, which she subverts to suit her own agenda. To return to the notion of the glimpse: we, the viewer see only what the artist wants us to see. In nearly all her landscapes or urbanscapes there is a barrier, be it a wilderness of trees, a network of branches, telephone wires or even a traffic light. Behind the beauty of the surface the something, whatever it may be, is hidden, and remains so.
Stranger Danger, 2010, oil on canvas, 18 x 13cm
Wendy Elia trained in London at St Martins school of Art and has exhibited widely, including at the National Portrait Gallery (2011, 2010), The Mall Galleries, 2008, selected for the Threadneedle prize 2010, and a finalist and public vote winner for the Sovereign European Prize, 2007. This year she has again been selected for the BP National Portrait Gallery award show. For more information: www.wendyelia.com
Deserted, 2011, oil on linen, 50 x 50cm
Marguerite Horner is based in London and has exhibited widely in Art Fairs and Group Shows, including at the ArtSway Open (2010), Threadneedle Prize (2010) Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (2011, 2010, 2008, 2005), the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition (2010, 2005), Beverley Knowles Fine Art, C4RD, ROOM and WW Gallery. For more information: www.margueritehorner.moonfruit.com
The MacGuffin Wendy Elia & Marguerite Horner
Published by WW Gallery, London on the occasion of the exhibition The MacGuffin, an exhibition of paintings by Wendy Elia and Marguerite Horner, 1st – 17th July 2011, curated by Debra Wilson & Chiara Williams. WW Gallery, 30 Queensdown Rd. London E5 8NN www.wilsonwilliamsgallery.com/macguffin.htm Designed by Debra Wilson and Chiara Williams Printed by WW Projects Ltd., London All images © the artists. With thanks to Anna McNay, Marie-Anne Mancio and Mary Rose Beaumont for their essays. © 2011 WW Gallery All rights reserved
Published on Jun 28, 2011
Published by WW Gallery, London on the occasion of 'The MacGuffin', an exhibition of paintings by Wendy Elia and Marguerite Horner, 1st – 17...