Through her mostly abstract work, Rachel Howard has long reflected the darker side of life. Past series have focused on sin, suffering and suicide. Recently, as with her new exhibition at Blain/Southern, Der Kuss (The Kiss), she has turned her attention to violence, the violence of the mind and the body.
It’s not hard to see why. Barely a day goes by without images being splashed across the media of war, crime and violence of various kinds. The prevalence of terrorist atrocities and the disconnect between so many groups in society who use violence as an outlet have augmented the feeling that violence is ever-present and inexorable. We suffer revulsion fatigue. Was that crowded market place bombed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen?
Howard reflects the unsettling and discomforting atmosphere that violence creates in a subtle way with her grid paintings which feature in the first of two rooms in which her exhibition is housed. There’s a certain comfort in grid lines, something deep in the psyche that appeals to the routine, the natural order of things, the symmetry perhaps.
Howard takes these and violates them. In works such as Night Painting, she paints the straight lines with a T-square, then adds turps and varnish that create a silk-like sheen. Then she tips and rotates the canvas to use gravity as a kind of invisible paint brush, causing the distortions to appear in a random way. It’s like the terrorist or suicide bomber performing his or her pre-meditated atrocity without knowing the precise kill count. Chilling, yet we see nothing explicit, not even a brushstroke. We have become distant, removed, numb. Howard is reminding us so.
She occasionally strays into the figurative with the inclusion of two paintings containing crashed planes, enveloped in a kind of pastel fog. I remember researching my family tree once and reading about an uncle I never met being shot down in the war over Belgium in a plane he was piloting. Eye-witnesses described the plane as being one third buried in the ground, vertical, like a large tombstone. Somehow these paintings remind me of this. Cleverly, Howard has allowed an underlay of red to bleed through. Speckles of blood. Death seems never far away.
Within the Der Kuss exhibition hangs a painting by the same name split into two. On the right, she has painted dots to simulate the sight on a rifle, a sniper’s perhaps. On the left is a wallpaper pattern. This is a recurring motif in Rachel Howard’s recent work and is explored further in the second room that contains four large and striking abstract works. They’re painted in deep crimson, blood-red in fact.
Wallpaper patterns and the impression of net curtains are clearly visible. The artist has used fabric to push the pigment on to the canvas to create the imprint. She has reapplied the paint to create darker pools and smudges. She has referred to them as being“like wounds on the wall”. They’re entitled Paintings of Violence and refer to a book about violence and power by political theorist Hannah Arendt.
Howard has spoken about how, when looking at pictures of crime scenes, it’s often everyday mundane details such as curtains, the wallpaper, the pattern of the carpet, that fascinate her. In the same way, victims of trauma often fix upon such banalities to displace the pain.
The Paintings of Violence serve as a reminder too that most violence takes place not in public but behind those net curtains. The four pictures represent the four seasons with seasonal details differentiating them from each other. Violence is no respecter of the time of year. Der Kuss is less the romantic gesture, more the Kiss of Death.
Der Kuss is showing at Blain/Southern, 4 Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP until 17 March 2018.
The images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.