- Bermondsey Project Space, 183-185 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW
Commenting on Julie Umerle’s 2019 autobiography Art, Life and Everything, Robin Klassnik, the founder and director of Matt’s Gallery, said it showed “the importance and joy of painting”.
That was before the pandemic lockdown that has so profoundly affected our lives, and particularly those of artists. But for Julie Umerle, whose new exhibition at Bermondsey Project Space, Recent Paintings, counterpoises her work before and during lockdown, the thrill of making art has not diminished. If anything it has grown. “I think Robin’s quote is really apt, particularly when we consider how the arts have been impacted by the pandemic”, she says. “Definitely, painting has been a joy over the last year”.
Multi-award winning, Umerle’s abstract paintings are explorations of geometric form and colour – whether one colour creates a different impression of a shape than another, for instance, and each canvas seems to be a stage in an ongoing quest.
“I work in series which are open-ended”, she says. “Several years ago I was painting the shapes of brush marks. Gradually these evolved into geometric forms and as a result, I became interested in exploring a number of these forms in my paintings”.
It is a joyous quest that barely seems to have paused in the last 18 months. The exhibition offers us from 2018 the stark Split Infinity, for instance, two black pinched rectangular forms, one on a sky blue background, the other on pink, the black paint allowed to trickle down the canvas invading and encasing the gentle pastel shade. Opposite, from 2020, is Clear Light, almost a juxta-position: bolder background shades of different pinks, blues, yellows and greens on different sized canvases, the geometric shapes gone but now with white spots investing the scene, not intruding.
Unfolded Polygons of 2019 almost shows us Umerle turning geometric shapes in her hands as she interrogates them, in soft colours somewhere between those of Split Infinity and Clear Light.
“There is a distinct difference in approach between the geometry of the Unfolded Polygons and the splatters and splashes of the Clear Light paintings which were made in lockdown”, she explains. “The Clear Light paintings relate more to earlier works on paper”.
Umerle’s work is watched with interest by other practitioners. “Her paintings evoke a feeling of suspension, as if what we see is a held or frozen moment within an ongoing process” the artist and art historian Simon Morley has written of Umerle’s work. “This sense of simplicity is achieved through an enormous process of condensation, resulting in a level of clarity and unity that permeates the work.”
Julie Umerle was born in Connecticut and came to the UK aged five. She was disabled in early childhood and is now a wheelchair user, a situation she says has no relevance to her work (thought makes visits to art galleries frustrating).
She studied French literature at Sussex University, and then fine art at Falmouth. She had a solo exhibition in 1980 in London, and in 1995 the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry hosted a solo show. She has been included in group exhibition at the Royal Academy, Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery, Huddersfield Art Gallery, and her first Bermondsey Project Space exhibition, Rewind, was in 2016.
In the mid-90s Umerle returned to the States for further studies at the New School at Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village, New York. She lived and worked between New York and London before settling in East London in 2003, where she lives and works now.
Her studio is close to her home and she was able to work through lockdown. At the beginning of 2020 she had been planning to scale up her work: “Like many artists, I was quite unprepared for lockdown so my paintings, in fact, became much smaller” she says. “I started to work freely on small canvases rather than pursuing the geometric paintings I had been engaged with up to that point”, and that change in scale is a striking element of Recent Paintings.
In March, six of her Clear Light series made in lockdown were enlarged and literally put up in lights, displayed on the façade of an Oxford Street store as part of a curated testament to NHS staff, “a great honour” she says. Since 2017 she has had a residency at the Marriot Hotel in Canary Wharf, which is ongoing: “I like opening my work to a variety of visitors and have had some excellent feedback from the guests. It is important as an artist to show your work as often as possible and to a wide audience, so this is an ideal situation.”
There aren’t many artists who can say lockdown has been ideal, and although it has had its effects, Umerle believes it has given her the chance to focus on her practice, an impact that is still manifesting in her current work, she says.
“It’s too early to know which direction my work will take in the future”. She says. “The circumstances in which I painted during lockdown were unique – certainly, having this opportunity to exhibit just as we came out of lockdown means that I will be able to reflect upon this, in time”.
Simon Tait May 2021
Julie Umerle | Recent Paintings is open at Bermondsey Project Space until 29 May. https://project-space.london/