Sartorial Contemporary Art

The new show at Sartorial Contemporary art in Notting Hill shows work by three stylistically very different painters. What they have in common is the rawness, the directness of their interaction with their subjects. Such is the extent of this raw honesty that the galleries’ website carries the warning ‘it is possible that some viewers will find these works disturbing…’ I went along to the private view to investigate and speak to the artists.

The first painting you encounter in the show is a portrait by Lee Maelzer. Maelzer is a graduate from Central St Martins and has had her work exhibited in the BP Award and the John Moores prize. She has produced two paintings of her mother which show her in the early stages of dementia. The first one fixes you with a stare which is hard to walk past and is evocative of the subject’s changing mood – somewhere between comprehension and fierceness. They are remarkably honest – surely nothing could be more up close and personal than this daughter’s unflinching stare at her mother’s illness? They are beautifully painted with a grainy, cinematic quality. Also on show by Maelzer are a series of paintings of her current partner. They show him in parts, like furtive glances, but seldom depict the face as with the portrait of her mother. I was touched by the reasons behind this – Maelzer’s art is a mirror of her feelings towards a person. She feels she needs to know someone before painting them- it is as if she is tentatively painting her way towards intimacy. The palette is also a reflection of this – the paintings of her boyfriend are paler and less substantial than the earthy solidity of her description of the mother. In ‘Hand and Nipple’ from 2008 the viewer sees the subject from the perspective of a lover, as if we are in bed with him. I remark to Maelzer that the painting evokes more than it reveals – even though we can’t see the sitter’s face, we get a distinct impression that he is asleep. She responds by remembering an encounter with the work of Freud – she was impressed when seeing a black and white reproduction that she was able to tell that the hair of the sitter was red. It seems she has brought these subtle powers of communication into her own work most effectively and it is this which makes her work the most assessable in the show…we are being allowed a glimpse into a most private place.

The works exhibited by Julie Bennett are all recent – completed in the last 3 – 4 months. Bennett is the ‘newest’ of the painters on display, and was recently labelled as one of Saatchi’s new stars in the Independent, as well as having a solo exhibition at the Sassoon gallery. She is also the only artist in the show to paint people she doesn’t know but whom we are all familiar with, in the form of celebrities. The finest and most haunting of her pieces in this show is ‘Rufus’ . An androgynous figure stares out from the canvas to a point just beyond the viewers’ right shoulder, appearing grimly defiant, the personification of the expression ‘chin up.’ However, this defiance is seemingly undermined by the gloss paint dripping down the canvas, distorting the face. The effect is not dissimilar to a burning candle, with wax spilling over the edges. I presumed this was symbolic of an internal emotional meltdown on the behalf of the subject, possibly the result of the discompassionate assassination of the subject’s looks and character by the media. As My assumptions appear to be unfounded, however, as when I put this to Bennett she looks mildly horrified – she says the intent of the work is the opposite, they are a celebration of these women whom the public look up to, whom she herself looks up too. The are an elevation of popular culture to high art. Her work is visually exciting, a celebration not just of these famous people but of the sensuality of the medium.

Matthew Stradling is a well established artist, with twelve solo exhibitions and inclusion in the BP A ward for his painting ‘The Mothers’ . It shows the artist’s mother, depicted twice as a metaphor for the artists perceived duality of her personality. The skin is painted with tight-knit brush marks which produce the effect of a pearly sheen. His paintings are ‘up close and personal’ in a different way. They are disturbing and uncomfortable, as the figures present their sometimes grotesque features with a pride that is reminiscent of Saville or Freud. However Stradling claims to be influenced by neither, citing as influences past masters such as Rubens, whom he admires for his fleshy excessiveness. His own work can indeed be described as ‘excessive’, both in the overflow of form and the intense use of non- naturalistic hues in the flesh tones, notably alizarin crimson and prussian blue. In another work ‘The Parents’ the ageing bodies are placed ontop of budding, green plants, to further accentuate the distance between youth and old age, a very contemporary twist on the memento mori theme. The artist does not intend them to be a criticism of his subjects, but rather a homage to real people, with all their flaws.

It seems that these three artists have something else in common, other than their rawness. They are all a celebration of their subject matter; a celebration of celebrity, love and relationships, of growing old, nakedness and honesty. It is this passion and enthusiasm that the artists have for their subjects that ultimately make this such a worthwhile and must see show.