R. H. Quaytman

I began to think of paintings as objects that you passed by ­– as things you saw from the side, with your peripheral vision, and in the context of other paintings.[1]

We pass R. H. Quaytman’s paintings and something catches our eye. We stop. There is a glow radiating from an upper edge, and diamond dust winking from some. They simultaneously attract and blind us, as do the optical illusions painted and silk-screened onto some of them. Effects of light and vision are important here; and we oscillate between seeing and never quite getting.

Quaytman’s paintings belong together like sentences, forming a syntax of refined pastel colours, greytones and gesso on plyboard. Each group becomes a chapter, so it is possible to read Quaytman’s output like a literary collection. At least one painting from each chapter resembles a small black cipher, a punctuation mark leading us into the sequence. Like W. G. Sebald’s novels with embedded photography, we parse references in the paintings;[2] many leading to previous Quaytman paintings, and others – as in I Modi, Chapter 22, here at the Venice Biennale – to a wider history of painting and printmaking. Quaytman often silkscreens photographic images onto the plywood, using Polaroids she has taken – softly blurred, their colours muted. Reflections and doubles are frequent, again referring to the processes of photography and printmaking, but also suggesting a Sebaldian collection: the paintings are sets, to be collected, and their referents ­– torsos, balconies, bridges – come in pairs and groups. Like Sebald’s images too, Quaytman’s silkscreened photographs are grainy, operating on a semiotic rather than representational level.

I Modi, Chapter 22 draws its content from a series of pornographic sonnets in an engraved book from 1524. While some of the paintings in the chapter represent no distinguishable figure, others contain enlarged portions of the engravings, focusing our attention on fragments of bodies and gestures, as if building a vocabulary of sensations from the sonnets. Literally translated as The Ways, the title also evokes the various permutations for hanging and arranging the sequence of paintings in the chapter. Quaytman’s method of display complements this, many of the paintings arranged on shelves and inviting reconfiguration. Experimenting with archival display was partly brought about by Quaytman’s experience sorting the artwork and estates of her father and stepfather, and realizing the problems of keeping a collection of paintings. Thinking of a body of paintings as a literary collection – a visual library – is perhaps a way to overcome the worry of accumulation and lack of display. In shelving the paintings (and elsewhere Quaytman has used sliding racks to exhibit), the exhibition is anticipating the work of the archivist or librarian.

A sense of anticipation is also achieved through the space depicted in some of the paintings. Quaytman often makes an architectural model of the gallery in which she will exhibit, installs miniature paintings inside this model, photographs the model, and then uses these images as the basis of the final paintings. A Russian-doll type technique, this practice is similar to Vesa-Pekka Rannikko’s exhibition And all structures are unstable, over in the Finnish pavilion. We recognise and feel a spatial immediacy, and thus the past, with its sixteenth century characters from I Modi’s engravings, imperceptibly flows – glows – into the present space of the gallery.
While the effect of Quaytman’s concise library of paintings is pleasing, like Rannikko’s project, it feels rather too politically disengaged and unproblematic in comparison with projects at the Biennale that focus on particular contemporary issues or challenge existing art production. While it is important to value art that treads its own path, when we view Quaytman alongside Omer Fast’s exploration of witness accounts and America’s military impact in the Middle East, or Ahmed Basiony and Egypt’s uprising, her paintings pale. This, however, is more a curatorial problem of hoarding extremely different artworks into one space. And like any large library, surely there is room for Fasts, Basionys, Rannikkos and Quaytmans.  

[1] ‘In the studio R. H. Quaytman’ in Art In America June/ July 2010 p.88
[2] Ibid. p. 92