There is a real presence to Celia Paul’s exhibition: Mothers, Daughters and Sisters.
Visitors to the University Gallery at Northumbria stood back from the water-colour paintings which hung at the entrance as if to give the framed female figures space to breathe. Light played upon the creases and layers of fabric in each of Paul’s works. The white dress worn by her mother in My Mother seemed to glow in places and to take on the colours of her skin in others. Cotton robes stretched taught across ample bosoms and strained at the knees of the long white robes in Five Sisters giving the women’s limbs both form and movement. One could almost sense how it would feel to wear the robes, to have one’s knees rest against the inside of the cloth and to feel the weight of it against one’s ankles.
The paint from each sister’s figure drips down the paper, leaving parallel trails of pigment. Stripes of mustard yellow, tangerine, chocolate brown, fern green and chartreuse streak towards the floor as though a prism has been held in front of the sisters and fractured their component parts for us to see. I was surprised to see how many colours there were. At first glance the paintings seem pale, as though areas within them have faded in bright sunlight, but when the paints separate as the bottom of the paper the many layers of colours and light within each piece are revealed.
Celia Paul paints flesh beautifully. Her mother’s face in the first painting in the exhibition is detailed in a way that reveals the strong emotions between mother and daughter. It was almost as though I was interrupting a personal conversation. My Mother holds our gaze, tolerates it even, as if waiting patiently for us to leave so that she can be alone with her daughter once more.
Paul fills the space allowed to her with living, breathing flesh. Feet and fingers look as though they might twitch as we look at them, faces are alive with personalities although they are calm and tolerant of the painting process. Each of the Five Sisters is dressed the same but we can see their personalities through Paul’s brushstrokes. The Gallery seems calm as people look at each piece for a long time. We have entered a different space and have been allowed in to a very personal, very emotional world.
The exhibition is on show at The University Gallery and Baring Wing between now and July the 16th