Natalie Barney Gallery

Somewhat unsure I tentatively knock on the door of a terraced house. The address is correct, I have tripled checked it…but there is no sign that there is a gallery here. I am late, but I have let Johnny Golding know that I will be; the uncertainty of whether I have the right place is heightened by tapping on the wrong door, feeling a fool, disturbing someone’s Saturday. I am a little on edge before as I wait.

But, it is the right door. I have a warm welcome and am brought through the hallway to a small room, painted white on three signs and with a stretched fabric screen opposite the door, through which I can peek the kitchen beyond. Two of Rebecca Fortnum’s diminutive paintings emphatically make their presence known on the left wall; somehow the eye cannot help but be drawn in and held there. Opposite a linked third work, a curtain covering a door looks back across at the paintings.

I am offered a welcome glass of water and offered three ways into the work: I am told most people stay for forty-five minutes, I am surprised; I am told that the left-hand painting has ten layers of paint on it; I am asked a question – do I think the three works are talking to one another?

Johnny then leaves, informing me she is in the room next door when I am ready, and that I can spend as long as I like, do not feel it has to be forty-five minutes, it can be two. I have a booking at Tate Britain in an hour, I cannot see myself staying long. I start to look.

I stare at the paintings, I am there with them. I sip water as I look. I notice things,the more time I look, the more I see. One is clearly a painting of a woman, she looks like she is from times past, generations back. Her hair is covered with a russet brown cloth. Her eyes are closed, looking downward, she appears lost in thought, akin to prayer, meditation or solitary reflection. Her lips stand out, the colour is the red of raw meat, a glimpse of the internal, it looks fresh and cold. Her skin is like alabaster, hard and cold; a sculpted shell. Her dress is azure blue, the colour of a fiord, perhaps that of her eyes?

Across the wall from the woman is an equally sized canvas – at a distance that feels achingly far and exposing, but also just enough to create a feeling of intimacy and dialogue between the two; they could be twins. This painting has a different tone though, a different feel. The colour is different, somehow more fleshy than the woman. The canvas is abstract but feels like it is describing the woman on the left. The marks feel bonelike, is this the inside, the unseen, behind the layers of skin and flesh. Or are the shapes derived from the folds of cloth on the layers on top of the body, equally possible. Eye-like forms look out at me, returning my gaze, in a way that the woman does not.

I turn to the curtain that faces the paintings. It is made of similar shapes to the abstract canvas, but they are not the same, different bones, different person? Curtains are there to add privacy to the home, to block out the outside, to aid intimacy and repel the voyeur. They block out light, they indicate the character of the people inside the building. Fortnum’s curtain appears drawn, faint with washes of grey. It is another type of cold, despite compositional similarities, I struggle to make connections with the paintings, they captivate me, the curtain closes me off, turns me back to the paintings. Perhaps this is its purpose for being there. Or does it make me re-think the paintings?

I cannot get Johnny’s prompt out of my mind – do I think the three works are talking to one another? I turn this thought over, it goes in different directions and thought patterns. Of course, they are talking to each other, they are in the same space, they were made by the same artist, they are speaking to me and causing connections between each other. They are in dialogue; it makes me think of art historian W. J. T. Mitchell’s proposition of the active role of the picture in his book, What do Pictures Want? Mitchell speculates that pictures do not want to be admired and praised as they are now, but to swap places with the person – “to transfix or paralyze the beholder, turning him or her into an image for the gaze of the picture in what might be called ‘the medusa effect.’”[1] These paintings do feel like they are part of the world, they do feel like they are aware of me. Is this a quality that Fortnum has embued in them, is it because the gallery is in a home, is it because I want to feel this. Mitchell  says that “Art historians may “know” that the pictures they study are only material objects that have been marked with colors and shapes, but they frequently talks and act as if pictures had feeling, will, consciousness, agency and desire”[2] and that “images had a power to influence human beings, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray.”[3] I am aware of these sentiments viewing Fortnum’s paintings, they emote, they appear to have agency, they appear to want us to be aware of them, to respect them. To spend time with them.

But are the works talking to each other? Are they talking with us? I am not so sure. The more time I spend in the gallery, the more I feel like they are unaware of my presence, they might want us to notice them, maybe even as Mitchell suggests, to swap places, but they do not appear to meet our gaze, to want to engage two-way with dialogue. They appear to be and want to be private, lost in their own thoughts, not wanting to share what they are. The exhibition of Fortnum’s encourages us to do the same, to spend time by ourselves. My feeling is that the paintings are not talking to each other, they are being private, lost in their

[1] W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p36.

[2] Mitchell, p31.

[3] Mitchell, p7.

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