Taymour Grahne Projects is pleased to present The Bell, The Bell, a solo show by London based artist Luey Graves opening in Cromwell Place (Gallery 12) on January 16. Accompanying the exhibition is a text by Brighid Lowe, Associate Professor of Sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art, London.
Opening: January 16, 6-8 PM (RSVP needed for the opening, please email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Exhibition dates: January 17 - 21
Opening Times: Wed - Sat, 11 - 7 PM and Sun, 11 - 4 PM
Address: Cromwell Place (Gallery 12) 4 Cromwell Pl London SW7 2JE
Neighbours loud and clanging, I put in my headphones and press play. The Bell, by Iris Murdoch, read by Miriam Margolyes. The unhappy marriage of a naive girl who studied Art at the Slade.
As I drift in and out of consciousness, I am aware of Dora, not my heroine nor my mirror, holding a butterfly in her hand. She releases it to the astonishment of the men around her.
Night after night, I enter the narrative at different points. I seem to wake most nights around the time of the drunken embrace, pouring rain and glaring car headlights. That he was a violent man was clear from the start. Is this Dora’s knowing or my own?
After weeks of restless nights, I am given a copy of the book. I read it in sequence. The pace slows and quickens. My dreamlike encounters with the spoken book inflects my reading, imagery hazy and already half known.
'The Bell is a quaint, dated novel about religion and sex in a community of self-obsessed people,' Amazon Review.
I am sitting with Iris in the Lord John Russell in Bloomsbury.
I picture Dora’s multicoloured jazz-skirts while she sets the Slade on fire. She was never a serious painter and always felt like an imposter. Is this in the book?
The bell, the bell. Echoes through the woods in the cloak of the night, the word repeats and reverberates like waves. The sea, the sea.
There is a film of Iris. Everything crumbles and collapses, the thread is lost. Judi Dench reminds me of my grandmother, and I don’t want to watch her lose herself again. Anyway, Iris is not my grandmother.
Luey Graves' exhibition The Bell, The Bell features a collection of small, treasure-like paintings on panels. Exhibited alongside each other, the paintings manifest as a collective vision or narrative that nets these singular works together. Somehow, I keep returning to the idea of a devotional, religious painting that acts as a shrine, or a precious image encountered as one goes about the daily rituals of domestic life - but then I try to push this thought away, anxious about ascribing any sort of religious connotations to the paintings.
However, this overwhelming sense of the devotional cannot be easily shaken off, and I come to understand why the pre-prepared panels, their surface and the application of the paint is so particular and central to their other worldliness. The panels are made by Luey’s father, an antique furniture restorer, and are inspired by an exhibition of Italian altarpieces made before 1500 they visited together over a decade ago. These panels have an uncannily flat painting surface achieved with multiple coats of Golden Gesso, papered back to eliminate all brush marks - creating a facsimile of the traditional gesso panel. Even the panel sides are stained and French-polished, in an allusion to the darkened appearance of medieval wooden panels once the original paintings have been removed from their frames. The application of the paint is also highly distinctive: Luey begins with a layer of watercolour and gouache, before painting using many thin layers of oil paint. It is a method that has similarities to traditional egg tempera followed by oil glazes, a technique used by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538), a pioneering medieval landscape painter who has so influenced Luey’s paintings.
This link to the medieval is just one time loop that ensnares us; the other time loop appears to date from the post-war chafing of societal norms during the 1950s through the threshold of the cultural and societal explosions of the 1960s. Each painting in this exhibition, each in their own singular way, is marked by Luey’s encounter with The Bell, Iris Murdoch’s 1958 novel of love and faith, or as Luey has written, ‘The unhappy marriage of a naïve girl who studied Art at the Slade'.
I would not like to suggest that there are any analogies to be drawn between Dora Greenfield, the naïve girl who studied Art at the Slade in the Fifties and the undergraduate student Luey Graves who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in the Noughties.
Instead, I will leave the paintings to do any such work for me.
Nor can I explain exactly why, after reading The Bell, that the following quote about Paul, the art historian from the Courtauld Institute and Dora's ‘teacher’ at the Slade whom she marries, so resonated and haunted my thoughts:
‘He glowed with a palpable determination to take his wife back with him and install her as one does an art treasure, clearing the scene, locking the door. His will arched over Dora like a canopy’.
‘His will arched over Dora like a canopy’ is a simple but compelling image that embodies the sense of imprisonment and claustrophobia that the paintings in this exhibition quietly reveal. The delicious, inscrutable smoothness of these paintings belies the turbulence and menace that extends beyond our initial encounter with them.
For example, we find an unsettling emerald green used to depict a life drawing class in the Western Classical tradition: a seemingly peaceful vision of two young students, concentrating happily, one male and one female, side by side, drawing amongst plaster copies of the busts and friezes of classical artworks. Later, I realise what was responsible for the unease: emerald green is a colour associated with the poison arsenic. All of these plaster copies of artworks in the life room will have undoubtedly been made by men, and gradually the understated potential for toxicity begins to play out. Life Room (Bruebeck) is a vision of sickness, a snapshot of a malaise that is about to be obscured by tiles of abstract modernity, or, alternatively, is revealed as still lurking behind their jazzy optimistic formalism.
Slade on Fire (Big Skirts) is a revenge fantasy in which the strokes of red on a 1950s jazz skirt picks up the flames behind or resemble the scratches of a captive trying to escape. The bright blue pleats of another jazz skirt mimic the cloudless blue sky shown behind the façade of a grand building - which is, in fact, the entrance to the Slade School of Fine Art, an edifice that here is beginning to be blackened by smoke and flames. Is this a fantasy or a nightmare vision?
Perhaps it is both.
Ambivalence pervades and complicates our relationship to these paintings, and features in their titles. Many have a secondary title in brackets, or sometimes the title is designed to undermine the image. The little goldcrest in that cage (The rest are tits and sparrows, I’m afraid) is a title that appears mocking, but we are unsure who or what is being mocked. The faux light-heartedness of the title is at odds with the sense of alarm in the painting; maybe the dark magic is conjured by the gesture of the manicured hands - these hands being perhaps Dora’s hands, the character who Luey describes as ‘not my heroine nor my mirror’.
So, that is settled then. Luey and Dora, ‘not my heroine nor my mirror’ but perhaps instead a third loop in time, present time, in which - a novel, a spoken book, another novel, and a film – entwine Dora and Luey together. One real and one fictious, they exchange places in the night, reverberate together in the present, and are intermingled in these paintings. Drinking in a pub in Bloomsbury with Iris Murdoch has another doubling and repetition: Luey and Iris, with Dora as the conduit or the medium.
The paintings shimmer with a perpetual oscillation between contradictory attitudes or feelings; of a curtain either being pulled back or of curtains about to be closed; of gardening and growth versus death and grave-tending. We are never quite sure which of these opposites has the upper hand.
There is one painting however which does show the upper hand; it feels different to all the others. It is the only painting where I feel certain of a future and of redemption. This painting, Iris, Reaching, is of two stylised feminine hands (are they Luey’s hands?), with red nail varnish and purple irises, against a simple yellow background. A line from The Bell, repeats in my head:
‘How very much after all, she existed; she, Dora, and no one should destroy her'.
Luey Graves is an artist living and working in London. She graduated from the Slade in 2009 and from the Royal Academy Schools in 2012, where she held the Sir Paul and Lady Pauline Smith Scholarship. She was awarded the Gordon Luton Painting Prize and the Land Securities Studio Award in 2012. Recent exhibitions include 8, Sydney Mews, London, 2022, Locus Amoenus, The Function Suite London, 2021 and the Creekside Open, selected by Sacha Craddock, in 2019. Collections include Soho House, the Luciano Benetton Collection and Sir Paul Smith’s personal collection.