With a background in illustration, Gill Button has established a reputation for taking as inspiration images of models and figures from the pages of fashion websites and magazines and re-versioning them into intimate portraits. With a deft touch of the paintbrush, she succeeds in investing each one with human emotion, feelings such as vulnerability, assertiveness, defiance or just plain cool. Her new solo exhibition, Traces of You, sees her take this practice a step further and extending her repertoire.
Apolonia (above) is typical of Button’s oeuvre, with the model’s looks made human by the lack of symmetry and the imperfections of the make-up and so on. It mirrors the modern phenomenon of how people’s social media image often conflicts with their real persona with all its deficiencies and fallibility.
Yet, the fact that Apolonia is looking away from us, dispensing with the artist’s trademark intense, straight ahead gaze is a recurring departure from her usual way of doing things “Here, there’s that little bit of removal, they’re a little bit out of touch”, she tells me. “They’re not fully engaged with you and you can’t fully reach them. Maybe they’re thinking their head is somewhere else, they are just not with you.”
To some extent, the images are windows into the artist’s own state of mind. She experienced the sadness of losing a close friend recently. Her portraits seem both personal and imbued with an increased sense of intimacy. Her subjects are pictured lying down, sometimes with eyes half-closed as if only half awake, in that limbo of consciousness, “a little bit vacant, a little bit distant”. There’s a kind of collective narrative at play here and their close-cropping delivers a cinematic quality.
There’s another departure in this exhibition. Button has a solo show concurrently running in Shanghai in the large Han Feng Art Space. Since her portraits generally measure only 30 x 30 cms square, she needed larger works to fill the space. It presented her with the opportunity to paint on a larger scale. As she put it, “You want to work big? Here’s your chance to do it.”
The result is that several works here are more than a metre tall, including the above. It’s a bleak scene as darkness settles on a distant, murky landscape beyond stormy seas in which the enigmatic woman, appearing like a beguiling mythological creature, is poised to go, say, night swimming. It could almost make a poster for an Alfred Hitchcock movie. If there’s a melancholy feel to the subject matter, the making process was a joy.
Button painted it on her studio floor using oils and solvents with what she describes as a lot of tipping, waiting, hoping and praying, never knowing for certain how the picture would turn out once the paint had dried. “I love that element of not being able to be absolutely in control. It’s like teamwork with you and the medium. I’m part of the process and I do want the medium to have its part to play.”
We Never Went to Brighton is a desperately poignant depiction of herself and the friend she lost whom she’d known since childhood, re-imagined on the town’s seafront. It’s painted in the style of those familiar old black-and-white photos you keep in an album and rarely look at it but when you do the memories come flooding back. It’s based on a trip that the pair had recently planned to Brighton that was sadly thwarted by the hand of fate.
“I have her in a cat mask because I didn’t want her to be completely present. I wanted her to be a little bit out of reach.”
There’s a certain fragility in the manner of Gill Button’s style and the looks that she creates so elegantly in her portraits. There’s a reminder here too that fragility extends to life itself. Yet there is optimism in this show too. The last painting she has made is full of brightness and she has added irises to a landscape, symbols of hope. The exhibition marks a real progression in the artist’s development not only in scale but in depth too.
Traces of You is showing at the James Freeman Gallery, 354 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 0PD until 31 January.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.