“The main theme of the exhibition has to do with looking and being looked at,” Celia Paul told me. “I wanted to try and subvert the notion of passivity—to take back control.” The work, Painter Seated in her Studio, is a testament to having accomplished just that.
Paul, who was born in India in 1959 and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London is wearing the proverbial, paint-encrusted heavy dress that she wipes her brushes on. The dress bears the legacy of years of painting, The wall behind her is painted with the same dashing flecks of pale color, like flesh illuminated. The way she folds her hands and feet demonstrates the delicacy of her being. We can also see the strength of character behind the quiet reserve. This is not a portrait of a sitter in repose, but rather a portrait of power and defiance. Here is an artist who holds her own.
The painting, as in all the paintings in the show, exudes a mystical glow. The subjects radiate, as though surrounded by light, as well as emanating from within—whether it be a building, a white rose, the sky, or the self-portraits. They all represent Paul’s quiet stillness and her inner world. Each painting is tender, delicate, and strong.
The owner and founder of Vielmetter, Susanne Vielmetter, told me that when Paul saw the show before the opening, she cried. “I was so moved watching her. She told me it is the best show she has ever had. The space is filled with filtered light, 20-foot-high columns, and large white walls. A massive space. Two of the paintings have a hundred-foot viewing space between them.”
In the nude, Model, Paul said she used a photograph of Gwen John posing for Rodin as a template for the head, “the body is dreamt up by me.” Paul has written a book about Gwen John, Letters to Gwen John, showing her deep, abiding connection to the Welsh painter. Both sought solitude after having been the muse and lover of famous artists; Johns with Rodin and Paul with Lucien Freud. In this painting, the naked figure has her arms raised in a cruciform. “I wanted to show the woman’s absolute vulnerability. Yet there is strength to the image: her shoulders are powerful and her stance conveys defiance. Even when Gwen John was most infatuated with Rodin, she continued to paint. She depicted herself in a state of supplication and waiting. By confronting her vulnerability, she subtly subverted her passivity. I think I am doing something similar.”
There is a raw honesty in the work, openly vulnerable yet self-contained. The paintings are a mind in the act of seeing, the act of intense attention. They are intimate distillations of the artist’s ability to hold long, deep focuses rendered into color and form. These are charged paintings that reach deep and vibrate. Soul-full. She doesn’t give you the thing, the person—she gives you its soul.
The self-portraits in the show are interwoven with seascapes, water paintings, and flowers, all of which were done from memory. “The sea paintings are almost like passages of music, suggesting the passing of time,” Paul said. “The flowers stand for renewal. There are also two paintings of buildings in the exhibition, both 20 by 20 inches. My Father’s House is the house where my father died in 1983 when I was 23. At his death, my father was the Bishop of Bradford. After my father’s death, my mother and my four sisters had to leave the house (it went with the job). I have depicted the young apple trees in the garden in front of the house. They represent my mother, my sisters and me.”
The other building is the British Museum at Night, an illuminated night view of the main gates of the museum. The studio where Paul also lives is situated directly opposite this view, high up on a level with the classical stone figures carved into the triangular top of the pediment of the museum. “The museum is a constant presence in my life. I have made numerous paintings of the interior of the room where I sleep juxtaposed with the museum outside. Virginia Woolf was impelled to write her great essay A Room of One’s Own while in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Her anger was fuelled by the lack of female representation in the books on the shelves. Inspired by A Room of One’s Own. I want my paintings of my room to be an intimate contrast to the imposing posturing of the Museum’s façade.”
Paul’s palette can sometimes be dark, with dripping paint and carefully drawn strokes. The seascape, Pink Sunset Over the Sea, has rosy hues with light dancing in the waves and the sky above. The strokes are fluid and joyful. She told me that the sea for her is a symbol of movement and stillness, the water constantly shifting, always in flux, yet contained and controlled. “I think one of the main reasons I am drawn to painting the sea so often is that by thinking about water and waves, my inner weather can find a resonance. My flower paintings are almost always about renewal. I love the infolding, the lushness combined with discreteness, in both roses and peonies, my favorites. They each have a heavenly scent. I want to try and convey their exquisite perfume by conjuring it up with my paint-marks.”
There is a conjuring to Paul’s work, an evocation of a still, quiet place that is teaming with feeling. Even though she is shy and reclusive, her paintings are anything but silent. Susanne Vielmetter said about the work, “I find what she does is revolutionary. In them, there is no bitterness, no resentment. She lives the most radically, strange life, fiercely devoted to her painting practice. Celia lives, breathes, sleeps art.” And her paintings breathe deep.
“Celia Paul: Life Painting” is on view through March 9 at Vielmetter Los Angeles.