Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Gillian Carnegie

Untitled, 2003
Oil on Canvas 172 x 137cm

Tate Britain, London
22nd October 2005

Exhibiting at the Tate for the second time in 3 years this time as part of the Turner Prize shortlist. Whist I enjoyed her exhibition immensely, it was no surprise it didn’t win.

She works within traditional categories of painting - still life, landscape, the figure and portraiture - each with a different technique. I found this exhibition interesting on a number of levels. The hang itself was something I was very conscious of given the different categories of painting and the wide variety of scale. Although Carnegie works in series, returning to the same subject but varying her approach slightly each time, in all her shows I have seen she likes to exhibit a mix of subjects, styles and techniques together. I felt there was to many things going on and that her multiple 'voice' was further fragmented by the hang - I didn't get a sense of dialogue between the work.

I think all of her paintings have a melancholic air, but I was particularly taken with this large painting of two rather barren trees in what looks like an atrium or some other kind of public place. I don't know the source, but I assume it is from a photograph, as I have found no reference to her working in situ from life. The trees are off-centre to the right, balanced by the weight of shadow on the left-hand side and cropped severely by the edge and top of the canvas, suggesting photographic source material.

The colour is predominately two tones of an "apple" green for the background of light and shadow that are combined with dark browns and blacks on the trees. It is this choice of colour that gives me a sense of melancholy as I contemplate this inner sanctuary.

The paint is quite thin and the brushwork in the shadows on the wall reminded me of Munch - probably because I had just seen his work. The brushy strokes are sketchy but confident and most importantly, extremely effective the way she broadly scumbles one semi-transparent layer over another. Thicker paint is used for the trunk and branches of the trees but they are also painted with broad definite strokes. Creates a sense of space.

I general I found her work full of ideas for experimentation with paint and food for thought on the subject of tension between the materiality of the paint and what it depicts.

According to the critic Barry Schwabsky, writing in Artforum magazine: 'Carnegie turns back toward the fusty hues of old pictures rotting beneath their own varnish, not to reclaim some former solidity but all the better to verify her forms' ultimate evanescence.'

©blackdog 2009


  1. Your analytic notes about this painting are detailed and interesting. I find remarkable the contrast of the straight and rectangular lines (hinting to man-made-things like houses, "public places", courtyards in a city) and the branches of the tree, two thick branches (diagonal-parallel lines) which give the feel of being a pair- "rather barren trees" indead, but there are a few leaves which signalize gentle life or surviving in the v city air full of emissions, in the narrowness between all the houses growing up on a such a little piece of earth! The choice of colours adds to the feel of a bit melancholy, otherwise the pic may praises the vigour an vitality of this tree surviving under bad environment conditions! I remember two tree poems of Bertolt Brecht:
    1. Bert Brecht, Der Pflaumenbaum/ The Prunes Tree

    2. Bert Brecht, Die Pappel vom Karlsplatz/
    The poplar Tree on Karlspaltz (Berlin)
    Eine Pappel steht am Karlsplatz
    mitten in der Trümmerstadt Berlin,
    und wenn Leute gehen übern Karlsplatz,
    sehen sie ihr freundlich Grün.
    In dem Winter sechsundvierzig
    fror’n die Menschen, und das Holz war rar,
    und es fiel’n da viele Bäume,
    und es wurd’ ihr letztes Jahr.
    Doch die Pappel dort am Karlsplatz
    zeigt uns heute noch ihr grünes Blatt:
    Seid bedankt, Anwohner vom Karlsplatz,
    daß man sie noch immer hat.

  2. Bert Brecht, The Plum Tree/Der Pflaumenbaum

    The plum tree in the yard's so small,
    It's hardly like a tree at all.
    Yet there it is, railed round
    To keep it safe and sound.

    The poor thing can't grow any more,
    Though if it could, it would be sure.
    There' s nothing to be done,
    It gets too little sun.

    The plum tree never bears a plum,
    So it's not easy to believe.
    It is a plum tree all the same,
    One tells it by the leaf.

    (translated by a team)

  3. Many thanks to the team for the translation of the lovely poem by Brecht.

    Agree it is the colour that sets the mood with perhaps the subject being so far off centre that one feels a little naseous. Doesn't work with a tiny photograph, but in front off the painting there is a such a sensation.