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‘Aeroplane Meal’, 2008, spray paint and oil on linen

It’s an audacious start to a career by anyone’s standards. British painter Phoebe Unwin, in the three years since graduating from the Slade’s Fine Art MA course, has sold several works to Charles Saatchi, participated in some seven group shows in significant international venues (from Honor Fraser in LA to Thomas Dane in London), secured representation with major London gallery Wilkinson and produced enough work for three UK solo shows. Debate continues over the real impact of such a speedy career trajectory on the student artist—being unwittingly lobbed over the art world wall as opposed to a slow and careful scaling of its spiky defences. Unwin’s second solo offering at Wilkinson however, Feelings and Other Forms, should allay possible fears re creative burnout or seduction to the (commercial) dark side. This is the most technically assured but, as the title might imply, equally intuitive body of work, that she has so far put into the public sphere.

So retro is the current state of contemporary art that my first analogy for Unwin’s painting practice—a metaphysical dress-up in stylistic conventions of the past 100 years—might apply to any number of artists working today. But while some practitioners appear to be clinging to particular art historical developments, as if life rafts keeping them afloat in a murky postmodern soup, Unwin has, so to speak, donned the scuba gear and rolled backwards off the jetty. As Jens Hoffmann posits, in his 2008 catalogue essay ‘Survivalism’ her unfettered approach to this age old medium can be partially attributed to the relatively recent year in which she was born, 1979. But however indistinctly referential to art and design movements past they are, each of Unwin’s scratchy, shiny or colour-saturated surfaces offers some new facilitation of memory through material and motif—acts more intriguing, if less immediately beguiling, than the formality of their manufacture.

'Beach Portrait', 2008, oil on linen
‘Beach Portrait’, 2008, oil on linen

Unwin’s reliance on personal recollection, rather than specific source material and technical gear changes in and out of figurative and less tangible compositional concerns, results in works rarely easy on the eye or mind. They are essentially multilayered abstract mental pictures, emptied first onto sheets of paper or into books, then re-configured on canvas and linen. Despite Unwin’s many visual references to contemporary culture, her impressionistic obfuscation of earthly things and experiences harks back to a time before photography became the subject of painterly critique. These paintings appear less about the technological modes through which we receive information than the neural game of associative tag that occurs as a result of particular encounters with a given place, person or object.

In earlier works, Unwin’s pictorial framing devices are clear, her vague personal narratives hinge to the bracket of recognisable image-making constructs such as portraiture, still life, the landscape and geometric composition. The human subjects of her paintings have developed over time from the focus of the image to just another mercurial element of it. Where once long-lashed 1960s folks (caught in the reflected glow of their own embarrassment), or scrawny sitters in situ encouraged theatrical characterisation, the new breed is harder to pin down. They appear to have shucked their mortal guises and got messy amongst the muted layers, flurries of brush marks and bold motifs that Unwin has skillfully appropriated. Think Bomberg and Klee engaged in structural battle with the Bauhaus, or Hockney’s faux-naïve figuration decked with rainbow strands of Léger’s ‘tubism’. Equally, the landscapes, such as the Chinoiserie inkblot—and flora—obscured vistas of 2006/07 that offered points of departure into aesthetically savvy fantasy realms, have been cut up and reshuffled into less obvious elements as if to encourage interpretation beyond received knowledge of a mode of making or discernible thematic.

'Day for Night', 2008, acrylic and gloss paint on linen 
‘Day for Night’, 2008, acrylic and gloss paint on linen

Naturally there is a whiff of the familiar about the glimpses of ‘real’ things in the new works and Unwin’s handling of them, even without knowledge of her back catalogue. The figure, everyday objects and the natural landscape remain key, while a single image can leave the mind whirring with references to art past and struggling to connect particular details with things possibly made before. Unwin’s re- configuration on canvas, of visual components from her growing paper library, has become increasingly sophisticated. Take ‘Desk’, 2008, in which a leafy Doigian universe appears to be simultaneously disappearing beneath and breaking through a spray-painted pale-blue layer. It might be a suburban wall hung with pictures or vaporous philosophical demarcation between internal and external worlds.

What of the ‘feelings’ though, the indeterminable drivers behind the making process? One can understand why the press releases for Unwin’s shows all focus on the formal side of her practice, for to wax lyrical about the possible emotional or experiential significance of hue and form is to step onto critically shaky ground. But there is little doubt that her uncanny distillation of abstract and figurative concerns and use of colour is all about being metaphorically taken somewhere. With the perfunctorily titled ‘Aeroplane Meal’, 2008, for example, all white-stencilled tray, dingy textile and cloud motifs, Unwin makes palpable both the banality of the in-flight experience and the profundity of being projected around the planet in a metal object. In other cases the sentiments are perhaps too personally specific to describe: whom is the ‘Soft Person’ lurking amongst the folds of Klimt-cum-Arabic fabric?

Walking into the downstairs gallery at Wilkinson elicits the two-fold thrill of discovering something covetable and new. It’s hard to know why given Unwin’s precarious pictorial balancing act between good and bad visual taste and the second-hand feel of much of the imagery. There are bits of beauty to be found in every image yet it takes a while to work out whether the crude, odd or simply ugly elements floating alongside them are aiding and abetting, or hampering the compositional cause. But ultimately one cares less about whether each painterly gamble pays off than whether she is prepared to risk it all at the outset.

Rebecca Geldard is a writer based in London