Intimate Conversations with Paint
Rachael Read’s paintings don’t so much greet you as seep into you. Into your skin. Into places of barely decipherable stories of flesh and quick movements, nestled in intensely rich environments. She may have hung up her dance shoes for now, but Rachael’s work contests how memory is the greater warrior over logic, as the principles of contemporary performance provide the stage for her mysterious, painterly journeys.
Each canvas is not the output of months of edits, finessing and fixing. Instead, Rachael employs a pacey and impulsive course of action. As a result, it’s a snap of the fingers. It’s a tilt of the head. It’s a range of improvised shifts, darts and turnarounds to better describe the work. Rachael uses the word “rehearsals” and this seems an apt account of the inherent liveliness of her output as a result of her method of input. What’s more, it implicitly personifies the essence of a painting practice being just that: practice - forever in flux.
The persistent movement, at times wild and athletic, extends beyond Rachael’s endeavour to make her emotional content tangible. Her work becomes an amalgam of felt memory with the immediacy that results from interacting with materials. A live response to the here and now, which gives agency to the substance that is paint. This physical reaction is as compulsive as it is meditative. It is bound by procedure and process, from the unrolling of the canvas and letting it hang like a stage curtain, to its rolling up and temporary setting aside. From soothing hand washing, from sitting, standing, moving in close and pulling away, to allowing muscle memory to determine recurring marks and shapes, the artist’s physicality contains the body of knowledge needed to make the painting.
Intentions, best or otherwise, are strangers here. The work begins somewhere which is precisely nowhere in particular, with a subtly shaded ground to set the pace, followed by a dab or swipe of the brush. And from that sparse beginning, an adventure in smears, strokes and splashes ensues. Unplanned bodies and faces appear. Almost camouflaged in her profuse surroundings, ‘Baddass Lilith’ recalls the cheeky miss of ‘L’Escarpolette’ 1767 by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in all her Rococo naughtiness as she flicks off her elegant shoe in reckless abandon. Likewise, Lilith is unguarded, a free spirited minx. She gathers frowns from the snooty, best behaved and applause from those of us who yearn to be her but will probably never dare. Though hers is not the only face in the crowd.
‘Twin Earth’ might be entangling one or several characters. This luscious painting feels not too far from Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ 1907 and even closer to Lee Krasner’s many takes on the great Spanish painting from her energetic collages to the dispersed faces of ‘Night Creatures’ 1965. And do I spy dance shoes in the corner? Are they pointed and ready for action? Is that a tiny house? The looking game gets tougher as rational deciphering falters and bows to the fluidity of the work.
‘Lily Shapes the Yard’ promises clarity in its title. A central, red shoed protagonist we might assume to be “Lily”, seems surefooted as she appears to manipulate her surrounds, beginning with an unwieldy vine-like branch. Yet is someone else present? Another player or a garden nymph? The richly set scene begins to unravel as garden shrubs convert to abstract shapes of colour and form, skittish lines of distinction can no longer be trusted and coherence begins to dissolve.
The ephemerality of dance performance seems to provide the platform for Rachael Read’s paintings. Unlike the rigidity of its ballet ancestor and unlike the repetitiveness of its modern dance predecessor, contemporary practitioners strive to connect mind and body. Despite her early retirement after a commendable level of academic and commercial success, Rachael has shifted from one art form to another, though a passionate portrayal of her subject has continued. Likewise, she has maintained a looseness in her narrative, making it as precious and fleeting as words lost in the art of conversation.
Jillian Knipe, 2020