Phantom Fabrics: Alison Watt at the National Gallery

Posted by Catherine Spooner on July 23, 2008 in Dr Catherine Spooner, Guest Blog tagged with

I was recently lucky enough to catch Alison Watt’s Phantom, an exhibition of paintings produced while she was artist in residence at London’s National Gallery. It was a profoundly affecting experience in its own right, but it also intrigued me because of the way that it opened up questions around the way we can talk about Gothic in relation to the visual arts. In all the media attention surrounding the exhibition, I never once saw the term Gothic used – and indeed, the paintings probably didn’t fit most people’s preconceptions of the word, being virtually abstract, full of light, and featuring no stereotypical paraphernalia such as graveyards, castles or vampires. The title, however, clearly points towards a discourse of spectrality and haunting: a visual engagement with the ghostly.

Watt’s paintings are monumental, taking up entire walls of gallery space. They depict swathes of white fabric, twisted and knotted into sculptural folds and recesses. They resemble the ‘ectoplasm’ manifested by mediums in nineteenth-century spirit photography, faked from muslin steeped in luminous paint. The centrifugal swirls of Host invoke the wings of seraphim; the classical white drapery conventionally thought suitable apparel for heavenly beings. They also resemble snow, bone, and inescapably, the curves and apertures of the human body. Watt states in a video accompanying the exhibition that, ‘Fabric is definitely analogous to human skin. I think the body in effect becomes a series of lines and creases and folds and becomes abstracted.’ In these paintings, fabric stands for flesh. However, it also suggests the immaterial, the ghostly. Fabric is the point of transition, the intersection between flesh and spirit. Ghosts traditionally appear in a white sheet – a version of a winding sheet or shroud. Brides in most Christian cultures traditionally wear white veils. To be wrapped in loose white fabric is to prepare for entering a transitional state, whether between this life and the next or virginity and marriage. White fabric is the vehicle of border crossing.

As Eve Sedgwick’s influential The Coherence of Gothic Conventions argues, it is not what lies beneath the veil that is of most interest within Gothic texts, but the veil itself: ‘the most characteristic and daring areas of Gothic convention [are] those that point the reader’s attention back to surfaces’ (141). Watt’s paintings are, in a sense, giant veils, but veils we do not seek to lift aside: we are absorbed by their surfaces, by the play of light and dark, the ghosts of colour that appear to emerge from the peaks and troughs of fabric. The apertures and recesses that are formed by the folds of cloth suggest a darkness we cannot fathom; they signal an interior that exists only as an illusion on canvas and therefore another layer of fabric, another surface. As Colin Wiggins writes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, ‘In Phantom the most significant part of the painting is no longer the material itself, but in the negative space. There is no telling what might be found in there. The title of the painting tantalises and hints at something invisible, yet present’ (25-6).

Although Watt’s paintings gesture towards sublimity, transcendence, they are simultaneously uncanny. By enlarging details on a massive scale, they render the familiar unfamiliar. In their hints of the body – ear, eye, tongue – they merge the animate and inanimate. When discussing her relationship with the paintings that influenced her, Watt declares her fascination with ‘this idea that the fabric has an independent life’. In these works, this statement has been fulfilled to the extent that the human body is redundant, its coverings infinitely more expressive. As Warwick and Cavallaro write of ‘the uncanny feeling experienced in the presence of empty clothes’ in their book Fashioning the Frame, ‘We long, not for the bodies that once occupied them, but for our own bodies, which we do not possess, and have never possessed, hostage as they are to the scopic regimes we inhabit’ (85). Watt’s paintings simultaneously evoke intimacy and absence.

Phantom closed at the end of June, but you can find more information about it, including several videos, at The National Gallery’s website. I’d be interested to find out if others feel that Gothic is an appropriate idiom in which to talk about Watt’s work, and how Gothic can be discussed in relation to the visual arts more generally. In particular, I’m interested in the inspiration Watt says she drew from Francisco de Zurbaran’s amazing painting Saint Francis in Meditation. To contemporary eyes, this painting of a cowled, shadowy monk clutching a skull to his breast looks incredibly Gothic – but painted in the first half of the seventeenth century, prior to the Gothic Revival, this can’t have been how it was intended. Does Watt’s revisitation of this painting in terms of haunting constitute a Gothicisation of the Catholic, monastic past in the style of Radcliffe or Lewis, albeit in twenty-first century terms?


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