Belated discovery at Parasol Unit, London: Swedish paintings haunted by ghosts

A couple of small jpeg images on an art listing website was all it took to create an instant atmosphere of mystery and intrigue around the works of Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand, two contemporary Swedish artists currently being exhibited at Parasol Unit in Hackney. I was determined to see if they were as arresting as they appeared online, and the exhibition did not disappoint; indeed quite the opposite – I found these works to be as atmospheric, as poignant, and as beautifully worked as their small digital reproductions had promised.

The title of the exhibition is Time and Memory, connected themes that promised – and delivered – a reflective, elegiac Proustian melancholy. Undoubtedly key subjects in this show, but for me the words most readily inspired by these works were absence, effacement, thereness and ‘not-thereness’, and these themes were woven into the works of both artists, creating a rich seam of conversation between the two.

The downstairs space is dedicated to the work of Cecilia Edefalk, an artist who has been at the forefront of the Swedish art-scene since the late 1980’s. The first room contains portraits, largely of single women or girls, and one portrait of a couple. CU, from 1988, depicts a woman leaning over a wall in the most delicate of palettes; for all its stillness and mutedness of colours one cannot help but be drawn in and to wonder what this woman is observing or searching for. In Another Movement, 1990, the artist captures and conveys a moment of utter tenderness, yet renders it in such intense Hockney-esque colours that an intriguing contrast is established between the superficiality of the surface that is at odds with the tenderness of the gesture depicted.

Cecilia Edefalk, CU, 1988, Oil on linen

The second room is better still, devoted as it is to a series of paintings, from almost miniature size to monumental, working and reworking a single subject; namely a statue of Venus framed by a leafy bower and in front of a shaded bench. The smaller renditions are exquisite, in a muted palette of whites, greys and silvers, suggestive of a winter’s landscape; in the larger canvasses the statue is effaced to varying degrees, appearing as nothing more than a white shadow in one, outlined only by grey paint that drips down the canvas around its absence; in another the entire subject is painted in nuances of white, as if shrouded in a heavy blanket of virgin snow – somewhat reminiscent of Keith Coventry’s White Abstracts but less textured and therefore more ethereal. These works possess a powerful tension between presence – all four walls of the space are covered in repeated depictions of the statue – and its absence, effaced to the point of annulment in the larger canvasses. The obsession with this single object – a statue of a Roman Goddess – was enriched by a table in the same room covered by Edefalk’s small-scale bronze sculptures, many of which depicted branches of a tree standing vertically. These delicate sculptures seemed to possess an almost tribal, totemic quality, which seemed of a piece with the near-fetishistic portrayal of the sculptured goddess on the walls around them.

Cecilia Edefalk, Double White Venus, 2000

The tensions between absence and presence in this room could be felt with heart-stopping poignancy in the works by Gunnel Wåhlstrand in the upper gallery. These large black ink-wash paintings appear for all the world to be blown-up photographs from the middle of the 20th century. Meticulously drawn in large-scale, these images are exquisitely rendered with absolutely jaw-dropping photo-realistic detail. Their beauty is all the more compelling once you are acquainted with their almost unbearably moving back story. The sources of Wåhlstrand’s drawings are family photographs, many of them apparently depicting her father as a young boy – the father she never knew, as he took his own life when she was just one year old. One of the most moving and arresting drawings appears to be derived from a photograph from a library (The Library, 2010). The reading room is awash with stacks and shelves of books, the readers dwarfed both by the books and the imposing architecture of the building, the angle of the view exaggerating its depth and the height emphasized by the three square pillars bisecting it. On close inspection, many of the readers seem to be ghostly presences, as if the photographic process has almost blurred them out of existence – were they moving during the exposure? And yet there was no exposure, and this isn’t a photograph – thus the time-honoured questions of authenticity surrounding photographic documentation (and thus depictions of photographic documentation) are raised by its displacement into another medium. In New Year’s Day (2005) there are ghostly presences too; the girl opening the door in the centre of the image is almost impossibly reflected in the mirror to the left hand side; more eerily is the presence of the shadow of a third figure who is not actually pictured; intriguingly that shadow falls across two other framed images on the right hand side of the drawing. These works are fraught with the question of what is truly there and what truly exists within the picture frame. Wåhlstrand has remarked that she sees photographs as a “proof of existence”, and yet her work is a testament to how fragile such a proof really is.

Gunnel Wåhlstrand, The Library, 2010, ink wash on paper

The press release for the exhibition observes the ‘quality of performance’ inherent in the work of Cecilie Edefalk, and the same quality is arguably even more palpable in Wåhlstrand’s paintings. Their large format, dramatic perspectives and stagey, photographic poses (exemplified perfectly in Mother Profile, 2009) have an undeniable theatricality, further contributing to the themes of verisimilitude and inauthenticiy, raising two opposing characteristics existence – its concreteness and its transient ephemerality. In choosing to exhibit these two artists together the curator has allowed for a richly rewarding conversation to be had between their works, for themes to be emphasized through their mutual reflection. This was an inspired curatorial choice and moreover by keeping the exhibition text to the barest minimum, allowed the voices of the works themselves to be heard and explored directly and instinctively.

Time and Memory: Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand runs until 12th February at Parasol Unit.


About ruthgarde

I am a writer and curator based in London.
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