52 (Vanessa Garwood). PM/AM at 37 Eastcastle Street. March 2024 (wo)

Vanessa Garwood’s latest approach to painting follows a decision to paint only in greyscale, and to move from oils to faster drying acrylic. These significant changes extract a purer process and a greater sense of immediacy, resulting in work that Vanessa describes as her most personal so far. Her interest has always involved humans and human activity, spending twenty years painting portraits, nudes and dancers. Now she draws more from fantasy, infusing unbounded imagination with figures from real life. Despite its more fanciful elements, the naturalistic nature of her work forms a relatable anchor for the viewer.

A shorter window during which paint is a flexible, changeable medium may reduce the time available for technical proficiency, but it absolutely inspires impulsive expression. Vanessa thrives within this flux state, uninhibited by excessive rumination. The removal of colour from her work has not taken with it any degree of vitality, instead having an inverted effect on the raw energy of her paintings, which seems implausibly enhanced in monochrome. Vanessa achieves a miraculous feat instead, somehow activating colour in the mind without requiring it to be registered by the eye.

Beyond the visual interplay of light and shadow is a more conceptual, existential duality. Though there is darkness in the work under the surface, a contrasting, heartfelt light brings us closer to the people we’re looking at, positioning them as our equals, to be cared for. This honest, sincere look at humanity recalls the vivid reports on the events a society experiences painted by Goya or Valesquez, though despite their complications, Vanessa’s characters are largely exuberant and joyful, and the paintings carry a sharp wit.

'Sharing the macabre incongruity of contemporary city life through painting is also my search for connection with others.'  - Vanessa Garwood

Situating the lives that we see in Vanessa’s work brings us to the nightly behaviours of a city, its occupants staged in environments of hedonistic abandon. There is a naïve wildness to these people, golems imbued with life and planted into a frenetic London evening. Although sharing a satirical madness with Gilray, his regal scenes are by comparison outdated and unrelatable; Vanessa’s are an assemblage of contemporary lives, banded together. It’s easy to feel in accord with these mysterious revellers, and the situations they find themselves in.

We note the strong presence of women, a wish of the artist to share certain lost moments of the female experience whilst they share drinks, smoke cigarettes, cackle and embrace - rituals not particularly commonly seen in art history. In one sense these are scenes of expressive freedom, a recognition of vivacity. There is friendship and a search for joy, but there is insecurity and sabotage. It could appear as a kind of desperate reach for jocularity in a world, and time, where we’re barely keeping oppressive struggles at bay. A question arises in the mind of the viewer - when does a simple pursuit of merriment become a mechanism of sedation and distraction?

This is where the work starts to spell out the striking complexities of our existence. There is jubilance and celebration, but these are overshadowed by a burden of unease, truly a testament to modern life where trying our best can feel insufficient, but all we are capable of. Strength and resilience are hard to place in the wild scenes, but they are there, a kind of exothermic stoicism. These layers of depth are what underpin the dramatic content and bold narratives in Vanessa’s paintings, revealing situations that many will find familiar and relatable, and her response to them fortified by the tools of compassion, empathy, and humour.

Daniel Mackenzie
March 2024