Celia Paul, Victoria Miro, London – review

Celia Paul paints her family and close friends, her spartan studio in London’s Bloomsbury, and the vista from it. With these limited subjects, she digs deep, moves slowly, refines nuance and, in this beautifully calibrated show, takes the viewer wonderfully into her own world.

Large-scale, intensely concentrated, pared-down self-portraits and portraits
of her four sisters contrast with small, luminous, hazy depictions of bastions or symbols of (male?) establishment power: the British Museum, St George’s Church at dawn, a comically abbreviated, golden, phallic Post Office Tower. Thus external reality is filtered through a temperament, sometimes as mere silhouette in the rapt “Plane Tree Shadow on my Wall”.

The portraits, rigorous but loosely, freely painted in delicate white-grey-brown tonalities, also turn crucially on light effects. Sun streaming into the studio
at varying hours and seasons – London’s pale wintry light in a new monumental portrait of Paul’s sister Kate; rising and waning summer brightness hovering over Paul’s own gaunt, taut features in five “Self-portraits” made monthly from June to October last year – marks time and its passing, while an inner glow emanates from each figure.

Depictions, particularly of Kate, a professional actress who is able to hold a pose of stillness yet great expressiveness, are alert with an interiority of being. But psychodrama is here too: Celia is the fourth and Kate the fifth sister, whose arrival marked for Celia a traumatic break in their mother’s attentions. From 1977 to 2007, Paul painted her mother, perhaps partly to regain her undivided focus.

Today her group or paired portraits of the sisters, often dressed similarly in timeless, nun-like white shifts, as in “Kate and Jane” here, are compelling studies of difference – features, hands, how the body holds its weight – within likeness: the assertion of individual as well as family identity; a painter’s attempt to contemplate, capture, understand the consciousness of another.

Paul’s is an existential endeavour: Giacometti, as well as Paul’s teacher and lover Lucian Freud, come to mind; so, too, emphasised by the privileged Bloomsbury milieu, do Virginia Woolf’s experiments with stream of consciousness.

Until August 2, victoria-miro.com

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