ART : Breaking Into the BBC : The British Boys Club of art is always a tough act to crash, but modernist (gasp!) Therese Oulton has done it in resounding style

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

“I lead an extremely isolated existence and the fact that I’m a woman probably contributes to that--I can never be one of the gang, particularly in England” says Therese Oulton, a young British Abstractionist whose work is on view at the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice through March 9.

“The British art world is quite small and more sexist than the American art world,” she adds, “and the highest of the high arts--painting, sculpture, poetry and music composition--are still heavily defended there. Very few women painters make it and it’s terribly class-ridden. But the British art world has certain things I need--it’s very meditative and private, and that suits me because I need to spend long periods inside my head.”

To say that Britain’s art world is heavily defended against women is a bit of an understatement--virtually impregnable is a better description, and that makes the success Oulton has achieved in just seven years doubly remarkable. On graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1984 she was immediately included in group shows where she shared quarters with such giants of British art as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and in less than ten years the price of her work has climbed to $60,000.

This is impressive indeed when one considers that it’s difficult to think of a single woman artist who’s emerged from England during the modern era. In an excellent overview of England’s art world published in the New Yorker last November, writer Dan Hofstadter explored British painting of the last few decades and made no bones about the fact that it’s strictly a boys club (a comically dour and bleak boys club too--Hofstadter titled his article “Dungeon Masters”).


Not that England’s been terribly supportive of challenging work made by either sex--you can almost count Britain’s modernist masters on one hand. Acclaimed British painters Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud are both German by birth, so that leaves Henry Moore, Francis Bacon--who’s actually Irish--and L.A. resident David Hockney, along with a few others. British Modernism has been largely hogtied by the fact that England is a culture built on notions of order, tradition and propriety, and anchored in a reverence for the past. One of Modernism’s central raison d’etres is, of course, the subversion of those very things.

In a recent catalogue essay on the British art world, William Feaver, art critic for the British paper the Observer, comments: “In England, to be progressive is to run the risk of being thought naive.” Lady Marina Vaizey, art critic for the Sunday Times, adds that “collecting contemporary art in Britain has had little social cachet and has frequently been viewed with suspicion.”

Those in England who do collect have tended to buy historic and contemporary foreign art. Moreover, the glamorous lifestyle considered to be a perk of a successful art career in America is anathema to the British sensibility, which regards ostentatious displays of wealth as terribly gauche. In light of all this, it’s no surprise that an unusually high percentage of British art school students opt for careers in popular music. Nor is it surprising that Oulton feels isolated there. Working in the land of the stately ancestral portrait and the genteel watercolor, she makes work that is nether stately nor genteel. Rather, her paintings are aggressively physical; in this, they show significant links with the tortured portraiture of Francis Bacon.

Pulling the viewer into a viscous psychological slipstream where all reference points and signposts are submerged and heavily veiled, Oulton’s work churns with an undertow of suffocating claustrophobia and dread. There’s no focal point in her pictures, no place for the gaze to rest, so the eye tends to buzz frantically across the picture plane in search of a visual resolution that never comes. At once organic and mechanical, her pictures allude to such conflicts as man’s neurotic need for control over nature, the effort to transcend the physical in order to achieve the poetic, and the life-giving properties of entropy and decay.

Oulton achieves her feverishly dense surfaces by a slow, methodical layering of color. She’s an extremely measured painter, well-versed in such venerated techniques as chiaroscuro and prismatic color, and the classical roots of her work are readily apparent. In discussing Oulton’s paintings several critics invoked the spirit of J. W. Turner, England’s master of the sublime landscape (Oulton actually prefers the landscapes of Constable), while others resorted to feminist metaphors to describe her work, likening it to female genitalia, or woman’s work such as knitting and needlepoint. However, that’s not exactly what she’s up to.

“These aren’t feminist paintings other than that they seek to undermine the classical notion of the ‘grand idea,’ which is a very male and pompous tradition,” Oulton points out. “I’m trying to create compositions that are built up from minutiae, and that’s a very anti-classical idea--classicism being based on the grand idea of the large composition that culminates with the final act of putting the highlight on the eye. My work reverses that approach, revolving instead around a kind of cellular growth.”

In Los Angeles from her temporary home in New York where she’s living while her companion, experimental filmmaker and film theorist Peter Gidall, gives a series of lectures in Baltimore, Oulton arrives at the gallery for an afternoon interview dressed in black. A tall, slender woman with pale, porcelain skin, she speaks in a beautifully accented voice barely above a whisper. She seems rather shy and there’s something fragile about her, but at the same time, she’s a rigorously intelligent woman of strong opinions that she doesn’t hesitate to express.

Born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, in 1953, one of five children in an Irish Catholic family, Oulton recalls, “My family was poor, but not terribly so--it was a typical Irish Catholic family and my father was in the Royal Air Force. I come from a musical background and was trained to be a musician--I play violin--but various circumstances obstructed that plan. Had I been a London child I probably would’ve been a professional musician.

“The first piece of art that made an impression on me was a Henry Moore sculpture I saw when I was very little--I saw the whole magical world of art in that piece,” she continues. “However, my career as a painter started fairly late and it was a show of Morris Louis that actually inspired me to get started.”

While Oulton had a reasonably cultured childhood, the religious training she experienced early in life was the dominant influence during those years.

“I was raised in a convent and I’m sure the repression of that upbringing is apparent in my work,” she says. “I was quite a religious child and it was a huge trauma for me when I broke away from it. I’m no longer a Catholic and have no structure of religious belief now--I’ve spent my life struggling to get rid of one. Of course, we never completely rid ourselves of the ideas imprinted on us as children, but I think I have moved out of the shadow of the authoritarian structure of the church.

“Though I often criticize them in my work, mysticism, metaphysics and traces of Catholicism are central to my paintings. My roots are very much there and I read all sorts of mystical writers--John of the Cross (a 16th-Century Spanish mystic who encouraged purification of the soul by the unsought humiliations of external agents), Jakob Bohme (a late 16th-Century German mystic known as the father of modern Theosophy), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a 20th-Century French philosopher who blended scientific theory with Christianity), and loads of Gnostic writers. Those writers attract me because they subvert the regular view.

“I say I have no structure of religious belief but basically art is a kind of secular religion,” she adds. “Living as an artist is the nearest you can get to a monastic order and art is a way of having a conversation with some greater thing outside yourself. It enables you to get beyond your own ideas and engage with a whole tradition of ideas.” (Having heard Oulton express these opinions, one isn’t surprised to discover that Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” paintings are important for her).

After falling away from the church, Oulton enrolled at St. Martin’s School of Art at the age of 22. St. Martin’s was an important breeding ground for England’s punk rock uprising during the 1975--79 period Oulton was there (one of her classmates was John Lydon, nee Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols), but as she recalls, “I never got involved in any of that because I don’t like gang things.

“I never knew anything about pop culture when I was growing up and I’m not desperately interested in it now,” she says. “Pop figures like Warhol intrigue me--he’s of great philosophical interest--but generally, there are other realms I find more compelling.”

From St. Martin’s, Oulton went on to three more years of schooling at the Royal College of Art. While still in school she began to be included in group shows in and around London, and the year after she graduated in 1983 had her first solo show at London’s Gimpel Fils Gallery.

As to the work she was doing then, she recalls that “landscape has always been the genre best suited to the ideas I want to explore and my early work had strong links with landscape. Unfortunately, people read them as straight landscape rather than the simultaneous undoing of landscape, which was what I intended, and that troubled me. But those paintings were fruitful in that they speeded up a process--I became more extreme much quicker than I would’ve had I not made them. There are still shreds of landscape in the paintings, but those shreds are buried in a multiplicity of references now.”

Oulton spent 1985 as artist-in-residence in Melbourne, Australia, and on returning to Europe settled for a year in Vienna. Since then she’s lived mostly in London but for occasional trips to Prague, which she says is “a city I’m completely in love with.”

Of her life in London, Oulton says “the work I do is very concentrated and close-up and I have highly structured work habits. I paint straight through every day from 11 in the morning to 7 at night--dreary isn’t it! It’s actually not so bad. I listen to music, mostly classical and jazz, and maybe take a walk in the park--still, it is an isolated life and it can be lonely. However, that kind of austerity is necessary for the kind of work I do and an active social life would dissipate a certain energy I need for my work. Curse those nuns!” she says with a laugh, clearly aware of the roots of her stern work ethic.

“Artists lead abnormal lives,” she adds. “Making art isn’t abnormal in and of itself, but the longer one does it the more obsessive one tends to become. I couldn’t manage things like a family--I can just barely keep this business together.”

In talking about her new work, Oulton observes that “painting is the only creative discipline that deals with matter and I think painters are driven by a need to bring light into the things that are most dense--things like mud and earth and bodies and flesh. The pain of a bodily existence and being ill at ease with having a body--artists try and illuminate that and somehow make it all right.

“The textural associations in my work have a lot to do with those kinds of awarenesses, and they can be quite disturbing for me. When I was making these paintings I was haunted by a nagging memory of a recurrent dream I had as a child. In my dream my skin came away and there was a kind of honeycomb underneath. Honeycombs are disturbing because they’re the result of a frenzied repetitive motion, and they’re too perfect--there’s something repulsive about perfection. And I see traces of that honeycomb structure in the work I’m doing now.

“One of the things my paintings reveal about me that makes me uncomfortable is my uneasiness with the physical and my morbid fascination with the fact that nothing disappears and everything leaves a trace,” she concludes. “The body seismographically records every tiny thing it goes through so it’s constantly in the state of disintegration--the body is a form of perfection perpetually in a state of being stained and scarred. And, painting is an exquisite metaphor for that because painting is essentially about a perfect, pristine canvas that one blemishes with paint.”