AGAINST THE GRAIN
“Going into the studio, I could wish that, after all these years, I had a system or failsafe mechanism that would allow me to execute daily portions of work in a finite and cumulative manner. However … I am always glad that I do not have this safety-net, though I am slow and timid without it.” (Marilyn Hallam 1998)
At a time when the visual arts can seem dominated by populism and the cult of personality, it is startling to find an artist talking about her work with such naked honesty. This determined rejection of a reliance on habituation or a repertoire of manners, is likewise true of the work itself. One consequence is that each painting comes as a surprise, each with its own resolution of convincing pictorial identity. Another is that, despite Hallam’s doubts, the continuity which unifies this oeuvre has the strength of a steel cable, marked by a series of works of impressive conviction.
Hallam’s choice of subject matter is conservative, even pointedly commonplace: views through a window, interiors, still life, people by the sea. However, there is nothing conservative or commonplace about the treatment. In 1994 I wrote of this work: ” … treated here without a trace of that secondhand softness that sometimes tries to pass for the Bonnardesque … (the paintings are) tough and put together with a cool lightness of hand which conceals the lucid pictorial intelligence which has gone into their making.” What I had not taken wholly on board at that time is the highly evolved artifice involved in these complex works. Despite being figurative, or ‘depictive’ as Hallam prefers, these are not naturalistic paintings. Every component is subject to the demands made by considerations of scale, surface flatness, edge and design, the literal facture and objective truths of what a painting actually is.
Oil paint is marvellous. Luscious even before you start, it is tempting for a painter at once to give way to the siren seductiveness of the stuff itself. Hallam eschews this obvious route. The paint is used quite sparingly, the palette is high-key, the chroma exploratory, and the gaze considered. The actual touch of the paint on the surface is both exact and steady. As a result, this painter can integrate pinks, reds, ochres and violets which in other hands could be self-indulgently over-heated, or just plain fussy. Instead, we are aware of a cool astringency informing the entire picture-plane and which lifts the overall image to a new and discursive level of ‘representation’.
The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch once made the point that the best art “offers an objective vision of the world and that what matters is not its individuality but its impersonality, this being the best guide we have to the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Thereby it can both humble and edify”. The commonplace, quotidian subject matter in these paintings is without drama. Any drama in Hallam’s work is of consciousness and is to be found in the handling, as if the painter were momentarily shocked to find herself alive.