Tuesday 28 November 2023

Leo Arnold, Schelpenbed







Portraits usually have glinting eyes. Painted windows normally lead to painted views. Still lifes tend to be small. Assumptions which these subtly convention stretching pictures quietly undercut. Eyes are supposed to be the focal point of a portrait, the point where it comes to life. In both Self Portrait (4.) and Self-portrait with shell (2023), we instead find something like the shorthand, dot & eyebrow notation of William Nicholson’s Geoffrey Taylor (1931) (6.), Marie Laurencin’s dark almonds, the black pearls of Julian Opie’s 'Alex, bassist. 2000' (2000) (5.). But this kind of abbreviation can be an expressive proposal in itself. (Rotate the eye in Self-portrait with a shell slightly over 90-degrees to the left, magnify it several times, and it becomes the blank aeroplane window of Fear (2022)). There’s a coolness (in both senses of the word), a detachment; the ‘sensitivity’ of the face more to do with the cultural significance of the floppy fringe, perhaps. And while Self-portrait reveals plenty of ‘life’ and nuance up-close (look at the jaundiced ‘white’ in the right eye), in Self-portrait with shell the face literally becomes a still life: one thing placed next to another, one shell placed next to another.   







































Remoteness and presence, dead-ness and alive-ness are recurring equations here, just as they always are at some level in portraiture: dealing, as it must, with the gap between a living person and a static collection of painted marks. There’s some sense here of fluidity – the highlight between the temple and the lock of hair in Self-portrait a bird-like shape, recalling the eagle or wing emoji, suggesting a certain fugitive quality to the sitter. (As in Bonnard’s late self-portraits, an expressive highlight on the side of the head takes the place of obvious highlights in the eyes). But it’s equally set, fixed – the paint ‘liquid’ but dry. Ossified even, if we turn to the barnacled Studio view (shell) (2023) (3.): a picture which recalls James Pryde’s fanciful paintings of ruins with their gaping windows and almost coral-like texture (1.). (Though here, close tones interlace in a kind of painterly camouflage, as if the building were trying to evade a predator).








































With its jumps in scale (the building could be a model castle in an aquarium) and ambiguous time of day, Studio view (shell) also suggests an underexplored link between Pryde and the Italian metaphysical painters – di Chirico, de Pisis, Morandi. (Except Morandi would never have tolerated this merging of genres and de Pisis would never have painted this thickly or gloomily). The shell itself was a recurring device for those painters. They found a certain poetry in its dispensability, its vacated, cast-off qualities, as well as its internal/external ambiguities. Likewise, we sense that the studio building extends to enclose itself, perhaps with a courtyard in the middle: winding back on itself like the shell, which conversely opens and unfurls like a giant flower in the dim sunlight. It's a rare moment of expansion in a series of pictures that are more often about contraction and claustrophobia. The roller-blind in Blinds (2023) denies entry, swaps depth for surface, just as the portraits are clearly images captured in mirrors ­– flat/dead on arrival. Extending the notion of bodies and surfaces, the pale, cross-structured expanse across the blind could almost be an elongated torso, the fabric like skin, the body rolled-over, flattened, rolled-up. This might be a case of over-interpretation but it’s hard to avoid in context, confronted as we are with a series of estranged encounters with the body/self.













Maybe I’m also making too many historical references here, which could be misleading. They’re emphatically ‘present’ paintings for all their remoteness, as of-their-time as any painting. Partly because they’re also so clearly observational. (Observational painting is always at once pretty trad, but also weirdly and palpably present tense). They’re also about observation – looking, and being looked at. With it comes a sense of anxiety as we peer over windowsills, draw the blinds, retreat from the world. Sink to the bottom of the tank.




1. James Pryde, The Husk (c.1920)

2. Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (1943)

3. Leo Arnold, Studio view (shell) (2023)

4. Leo Arnold, Self-portrait (2023)

5. Julian Opie, (‘Alex, bassist. 2000’) Alex James (2000)

6. William Nicholson, Geoffrey Taylor (1931)




Leo Arnold, Schelpenbed runs at Loveday, London 16/11/2023-23/12/2023