Pieces of ribbon, a bathroom pull-cord light, a decorative curlicue, a brass letter intended for a door—such objects find their way into Audrey Reynolds’ paintings. Cumulatively, they suggest a subcategory of the found object that we might call the ‘lost’ or ‘curious’ object, each telling a partial story or implying a mundane fantasy. Reynolds describes her relationship with these objects as ‘having a conversation’, and while noting that she is ‘used to paint and art materials’, an alternative dialogue is possible with a found object.
Today’s contemporary art audience may barely remark on the presence of found objects within sculpture and even painting, so frequent and embedded is this class of objects. Take, for example, the use of plinths and rugs in Reynolds’ work. Most of her sculptures involve plinths covered with household paint, while works such as ‘Josephine B’, 2005, and ‘The Governess’, 2009, also integrate rugs on which the plinths rest. While we might give more observation to the hand-moulded top elements, fashioned from hundreds of pieces of modelling clay that appear like masticated pixels, we mistakenly pay less attention to the contribution of other elements. But these elements deserve scrutiny, as Reynold’s sculptures are effectively triptychs. The plinth, loaded with its museological and institutional origins and generally pushed out of 20th century sculptural display, reappears in her practice not as a utilitarian article but as an appropriated object, set in the function and animate character of the work. Plinths are custom made for each sculpture and with their glossy surfaces and tough, oblong dimensions they balance the lumpish and finger-sullied top pieces that they support. Ameliorated back into an artist’s practice, the plinth is rescued and given intrinsic sculptural importance beyond its common function as an item of display.
While we might put blame on minimalism for the decline of the plinth, it has an unexpected presence in Reynolds’ sculptures and paintings. The term ‘dirty minimalism’ may indeed characterise her practice. While minimalism’s angular properties emerge via the plinths, the genre’s lessons in phenomenology surface powerfully in her practice: Judd-like display of such works as ‘1395-1399’, 2009, and ‘1863’, 2010, which, fixed at right angles to the wall and casting trapezoid shadows, coax the observer into a triangular enclave the paintings configure. Minimalism’s phenomenology also makes an appearance in the artist’s use of rugs and, more recently, fitted carpets. While rugs underneath plinths have been recurring features since 2005, it was with the 2010 solo show at Arcade Fine Arts in London, that fitted carpets entered her practice. A linking fixture of the objects on display, this superlatively yellow article begged for muddy shoes and red wine accidents. Yet, for all its dazzle, the carpet may have been the last thing a visitor noticed, and here the play with phenomenal space departs from that of Reynolds’ precursors. Softening the ground, her yellow carpet presents a more lyrical physicality than minimalism’s ‘heightened perception’. Accidental scuffs and smudges on the yellow present a misleading affiliation to the very deliberate and measured marks on the paintings and in the sculptures, yet the arrangement is loaded with a charm of the household, slightly nostalgic and very personal. Reynolds admits an interest in the ‘death’ of the carpet as a domestic fixture. ‘We’re not really sure’, she suggests, ‘whether carpets are good or bad. Are they dirty or clean? Are they posh or common?’ Like the plinths and the curious fragments affixed to Reynolds’ paintings, the carpet is both salvaged and offered fresh attention, and aestheticised as mundane or out of fashion.
Making work in London, both at home and in her studio, there is a sense of producing ‘from the corner of the eye’ in her practice. A piece of work may take a considerable length of time before it is finalised, perhaps being left without attention for long periods. Though she might repaint surfaces, end up with a sculpture that has been reduced to a quarter of its initial size, or even combine two separate pieces into one, she rarely abandons her works-in-progress, and is decisive about the point at which they are finished. sculptures made from modelling clay, for example, are varnished and preserved in the work’s final stages, thus resisting the medium’s potential imply a constant state of progress.
This process emerges most effectively in Reynolds’ paintings on canvas and board. In method and tenor they bear an affiliation with traditional Middle Eastern and south Asian miniature painting. The miniaturist, working on specially prepared paper, builds her or his paintings with wash after wash, alternately sanding away earlier marks, or burnishing their surfaces, before applying more articulated shapes with brushes that can be as fine as the hair of a squirrel’s tail. This practice, recently revived by a dedicated miniature department at Lahore’s National College of Arts, produces paintings that have a definite yet imperceptible sense of layering and thus a very particular depth. Looking at the resulting work is rather like peering into a body of water, observing the shifting elements just beneath the surface. Reynolds similarly builds elaborate yet barely detectable stratifications of paint in her work by adding washes, using variant textures of acrylic or household paint, sanding marks away and arranging hundreds of subtle elements.
In relation to her painting, Reynolds talks about the particular beauty of a mug-stain on a wooden table: you can run your fingers over the circular damage but it cannot be felt because it is under the surface. And though it is a stain, it is clean. The stain also affirms that the table is used, its authentic character being fulfilled. As Jonathan Griffin points out, the stain is ‘an index of an event that refuses to budge, a memory that promises to hold fast until we choose to discard it, along with the surface it’s anchored in.’ It is (sometimes exasperatingly) unclear whether stains in Reynolds’ paintings—particularly those rendered on untreated board—are contrived, adapted, or simply permitted. Along with the lost or curious objects and the suggestively figurative shapes within her largely abstract compositions, they become characters of imaginative projection. Yet to give narrative to the life of a stain on the surface of a painting is not to give the gesture meaning or locate that meaning within the work at large—it is to indulge in the evocative potential of the thing itself.
Gemma Sharpe is a writer based in London