Why is it so rare in contemporary painting to see an artist engage with ‘depth’, that elusive scenic attribute of representational painting? Perhaps since the mid-60s and Gerhard Richter’s engagement with photography, the pre-eminent idea of painting as ‘pictures of pictures’, has put a squeeze on ‘illusory space’, narrowing pictorial depth to the fractions of millimeters that the paint physically inhabits.
Richter’s interrogation of appearances was aimed at giving voice to that which could not be easily understood, the unexplained or incomprehensible. Lee Maelzer’s paintings in her exhibition ‘Waiting Room’ at Angus Hughes Gallery seem to be fishing for something equally elusive. Her interiors feel as if they have been eroded by years of skepticism, doubt, irony and debate, as if enquiry rather than entropy is pulling their walls apart.
Depth in one sense is a measure of gradations of light; the less light the flatter our visual field. Maelzer seems interested in the tension between flatness and depth, between lightness and dark, and in light as a physical sensation. Her carefully compressed tonal range flattens the surfaces of her paintings the way theatre lighting flattens a stage set, casting figurative elements in a more abstract, shadowless role. Whilst Richter was moved to shatter the surface to reveal its potential and implicate the figurative in a ‘failing’, Maelzer’s images refuse to acknowledge artifice as faltering, or failure as inherent. Modernism may have shed paintings archaic symbolism and clichéd narrative structures, but we find in Maelzer’s technique a reminder of paint’s capacity to engage elusive qualities whilst refreshing and implicating the dramas of context and the pertinence of narrative, particularly where there is a sense of a social discourse or philosophical nuance.
The exhibition press release refers to David Lynch, and the paintings in ‘Waiting Room’ are reminiscent of a scene in his film Lost Highway, where the camera slowly drifts through a dimly lit apartment, antechambers of domestic fog never quite opening onto a space that could be an inch or a mile deep. As if from somewhere within sleeps dreamy, helpless complicity, you experience the sequence as a physical reaction; of trepidation, anxiety, and uneasiness, all engaged by Lynch’s orchestration of light and sound. Something of this feeling crawls up your back looking at Maelzer’s paintings.
The works on display carefully draw back from being subsumed by the mechanical pursuit of a naturalistic rendering, delivering scenes that feel purposefully held in limbo; a stage-set recreation of a scene rather than a scenic experience of real life. Devoid of protagonists, their still, reticent scope is enhanced by her treatment of windows. In ‘Place to Be’ (2012) the glass has no more depth than the gallery walls, whilst in ‘Yellow Curtains’ (2012) the curtains are obstinately drawn against the outer, enhancing the room’s dense containment.
Some of the most engaging paintings contrast their overt stasis with an allusion to functionality. In her dusty pipes, abandoned taps and soap dispensers you anticipate a sounds, a motion, a forgotten purpose. If a tap drips in an empty building and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? The tiny flickers of light reflected in their metallic dormancy are rare, deft ticks or painterly movement amidst the foggy stillness. Several areas of fuzzy, patchy paintwork develop the idea that these painting are montages rather than singular scenes. An area of floor is unusually free of debris, as if something or someone has been erased, a cloudy halo hovers around a sink; an amateur cut and paste fusing fragments in a hasty, dislocated union.
Depictions of old mattresses may falter on a narrative level, burdened by too overt a shift from design, through intimacy, to burden. In London it could just be a case of overkill; innumerable real ones sat hunched up against the rain in the gardens of the streets around the gallery. Like the graffiti on Maelzer’s illusory walls, some may argue that the issue is one of roughness’ roughness being rougher when its not transcribed. Maelzer could easily have fallen into the trap of assigning grace to the derelict, but literal roughness, or the circumstantially abject, isn’t really her subject. In Maelzer’s cracked shells there is expressed an atmosphere containing that part of the cycle of structural demise that has us in its sights. Her real focus is on painting’s material introversion, its aching lack of voluble intent, and her subjects serve as an equitable metaphor for a comparable sensation in human experience.
Waiting rooms, at the dentist, the doctors, the oncologist, the optician; waiting to be instructed on the terms of physical cessation. Waiting rooms in the shadows, a prison cell, death row, purgatory, somewhere between heaven and hell, your living room. For a long time painting and art served to propagate the fictions born of all that we do not understand, the heavens and hells and superstitions built within gaps of meaning. In Maelzer’s paintings we find how well paint is suited to describing a kind of limbo between overt meanings, where matter is waiting to fall in or out of sense.
Lee Maelzer,‘Waiting Rooms’ Angus Hughes Gallery, London. 11/10 – 17/11/13 http://www.angus-hughes.com/Waiting-Room http://www.leemaelzer.com/ https://www.facebook.com/ThePageArtReviews