This painting is inspired by the poem 'Gray Room' by Wallace Stevens, published in 1917:
‘Although you sit in a room that is gray,
Except for the silver
Of the straw-paper,
At your pale white gown;
Or lift one of the green beads
Of your necklace,
To let it fall;
Or gaze at your green fan
Printed with the red branches of a red willow;
Or, with one finger,
Move the leaf in the bowl--
The leaf that has fallen from the branches of the forsythia
What is all this?
I know how furiously your heart is beating.’
It felt to me that the subject of this poem was being looked at and studied in quite an intense - near voyeuristic - way that is common when depicting women in the history of European art. Simultaneously, the poem is also a beautiful collection of visual images.
I wanted to subvert this - assumed and felt to be male from the poem - gaze by not allowing the viewer to see her face so it is a mystery to us how she has reacted but you can sense from the angle (looking down over the back of her shoulder while she is backed into a corner, the expansive skin of her neck on show) and from the unsettling sharp angles of her form and the picture rail that it is an ambiguous one - especially if her heart is beating so furiously. This is supported by the poem also never specifically mentioning her facial expression so the woman appears more as a feeling or a ghost - every one of her physical actions is connected to a visual object until the last line grounds her as human.
I am interested in the extent to which characters can take on a life of their own in my mind that will be inevitably coloured by my own context and whether this is at odds with what the artist intended. The poet can only influence my view. Just as I can only influence the viewer in my own interpretation.
The narrator seems to have bought into the assumption that one can accurately deduce what somebody else is thinking and feeling, simply by looking at them. Or, rather, seeing them.
I am interested in things that examine something while also containing parts of the thing that they are examining - making it simultaneously a beautiful and slightly unsettling scene.
It is as art historian John Berger said ‘men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at’
I painted this in a slightly looser style than usual - though I couldn’t quite bear for the forms to properly come apart - because I’d been looking a lot at the 19th century realists like Sargent and Whistler and I liked the idea of the background being slightly impressionistic - reflecting the underlying tensions - and for some of the forms to be a little blended into one another. I didn’t want to overwhelm the composition with objects so I chose just the necklace and fan to depict, echoing the green carpet. I ended up having to paint the red willow branches onto a prop green fan myself to stick to the poem. My friend Charlie posed for it not as herself but playing the character in the poem.
'Gray Room' , 2020
(oil on board, 48.3 x 38 cm)