‘In Emotia ’ by Glasgow based artist France-Lise McGurn is made up of three material elements of painting: wall drawings that encase the room, canvases placed among these drawings and neon constructions both fixed and suspended. Each element displays drawings of the figure, freeform compositions built up and filled, playfully reaching across their pictorial frames. The canvases represent a more permanent fixture, with the wall pieces designed specifically for the room — together they play with space and architectural detail. McGurn’s work is often described as ‘immersive’, ‘intuitive’, ‘seductive’—words that hold romance and a yearning for the ephemeral and stylised. The title plays with this language describing a simultinaity of emotion and movement that feels its way into the action of being in emotia.
Tramway 5 envelops the viewer in work, perhaps in a more intense way than I’ve seen before. Figures move in a fluid zigzag across all the walls, following an almost classical configuration, making me look up and along, to follow a line from a toe to a finger, passing a shoulder to toe once more. Occasionally drawings form a cluster, the process of application overlapping, causing a solidity that then relates to the pre-worked canvases. Spreading over the window, the drawings build a relationship to the singular paintings in their square frames, activated by edges and borders of glass.
During my visit I looked at the gallery floor, and found beer bottle lids accidentally left in the old tram tracks from the preview. I imagine how the work would have come alive in the gathered crowd, one in, one out, how the drawn figures on the wall would have centred around me differently.
The neons sit alongside and among the other works, with two additional figures suspended in the middle of the room. One swayed gently, striplight against daylight, throughout my visit, its glow subtly calling my attention, neon is a strictly unimprovised medium, contained within its own gravity; coloured lights radiating movement and design.
I wonder about the drawings being described as ‘intuitive’ and the risk of the kind of high stakes performance it takes to make it work each time. To improvise something, to get it right, often implies a kind of virtuosity or magic. I’m reminded of my old job: a group of musicians used to meet on a regular basis to rehearse in a hired room. They were an improvisational jazz ensemble, and the entries on the calendar it read ‘improvisors’ rehearsal’, which always made me chuckle.
This reminded me about the necessary and most often hidden graft that underpins improvisation—the deliberate labour of craft and play, the learning of spells in order to have the confidence of suspense. A measured precariousness.
McGurn’s work is all about knowing the form and figure, an action of memory and reference recall, following the gesture, while depicting its spontaneity. Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, perhaps Celia Hempton seem present. McGurn’s awareness of her influences and place in the cannon, is played around with, flexed and flared.
This work is seductive, it is immersive, seriously playful, and admirable. But there are moments in this show where the mastery fails me, where I long for a more rehearsed presentation, slowed down, interrogating the ground. Or perhaps I’m looking, at this time, for a more overt or engaged context beyond beauty, mastery and skill; a dirtier frame of reference.
25th January – 29th March 2020 (CURRENTLY CLOSED)
Gwenan Davies is an artist, living and working in Glasgow. She works in painting, drawing and writing, and is the curator of the ongoing series of one-night exhibitions, Gwenan International. Gwenan recently completed the MFA at Bard College, New York.
France-Lise McGurn (born 1983) is a Glasgow-based artist who predominantly works with painting to create layered installations that incorporate the gallery walls, floors and ceilings. Her work has been featured in Art Now at Tate Britain, Extensa Suite, Hospitalfield, Arbroath, 2018, Virginia Woolf, an exhibition inspired by her writings 2017–18, Tate St Ives, Pallant House, Chichester, and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. France-Lise McGurn is represented by Simon Lee Gallery.