Time and Memory: A past review

by Helen Barker

Earlier in the year I wrote a review for a competition. Having been informed that my review was not selected for the prize, I thought I would post it here on my blog. The exhibition has ended, but I hope that you might get an opportunity to see the Artists’ work in the future. It really is worth seeing.

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Time and Memory: Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand at Parasol unit, London

Virginia Woolf once said, “I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

Such impalpable truths can be found running through the exhibition Time and Memory at Parasol unit; the first London show by Swedish artists Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand. By revisiting the past both artists explore the intimate notion of ‘self’, delving into a complex mix of memory, heritage and circumstance – all of which contribute to the understanding we have of being here, now, in the present.

Time and Memory is a deceptively rigorous exhibition created by two equally meticulous artists. Paintings referencing personal memories, moments in history and the process of creating work are evenly distributed around the room. Both Edefalk and Wåhlstrand occupy their territory with the same level of concentration, selective behaviour and intentional narrative drive; but their individual excavations of painting and photography produce two vividly dissimilar outcomes.

Inhabiting the ground floor, Edefalk’s paintings offer a strategically mapped critique on human form and behaviour. Confined within a tight palette of muted greys, occasionally punctuated by a splash of red or blue, her series of portraits showcase an unlikely catalogue of figures. From Laurel and Hardy to magazine-inspired duos and marble statues, Edefalk’s images form the disparate elements of a hidden narrative. Like a magician demonstrating the illusion of disappearance, the artist plays with repetition, reproduction and erasure to explore themes of displacement and loss.

Along one wall hangs Echo, a triptych of figures resembling the artist herself, each one a direct copy of the last. All similarities between the images are immediately overshadowed by a number of small but distinct differences. In the act of painting, the artist allows her hand to deviate from perfection and fulfil its most celebrated attribute – the uniqueness of human approximation. Like ripples moving slowly across a still pond, Echo ruptures the present moment and reverberates around the room causing a glitch in the matrix of time.

On the wall by the entrance hangs a large painting entitled Another Movement. Inspired by an image in a magazine advertisement, a man touches the back of a naked woman who looks out into an opaque, flat background. The sweep of his hand against her skin is a far cry from the perfunctory act of depiction found in the glossy pages of most magazines, indicating that some distance has been travelled between the origin of this image and its final destination. But the superimposed nature of two figures on a lustreless surface of blue, painted with strong and saturated intention, finds the painting at home with its title – thrust into Another Movement, distinct from those around it.

Other works on display by Edefalk are just as particular. Conversations between large images of a statue painted in a deathly pallor of whites and smaller postcard-like paintings of the same subject surround the second ground floor space. Interrupted by a collection of earthy sculptures in weeping bronze, Double Venus alludes to the tomb-like mummification of memory. Bound in the cloth of time, Edfalk paces the room with the determined gaze of a returning pilgrim, and her work pays tribute to the curious intangibility of time gone by.

By stark contrast Wåhlstrand’s paintings apprehend the upstairs rooms with the diligence of a crime scene reconstruction. Immaculately reproduced images of family photographs created in ink wash hover in the space, glowing like negative film. Haunting and evocative, Wåhlstrand uses images of her personal past to prod at the sentiment of family life, and all the impossible moments she can never know.

Along one wall a painting of Wåhlstrand’s mother looks beyond the frame. Depicted in profile, with the perfection of a soft focus lens, Mother Profile is a celebration of flawless beauty. In the vacuum of the gallery these images transcend their roots and take on a universal western quality of representation. The creation of such painstaking work suggests complete dedication to the act of looking; no detail is missed, no part of the image is left unturned.

Like a dramatic still from a movie, New Year’s Day reveals the epic grandeur of intimate family life. In the foreground a girl stands with her hand on the door gazing directly into the eye of the viewer, her posture both hesitant and formal. Behind her a boy (Wåhlstrand’s father) flicks through a book. In the open space of the well-ordered room a sense of something foreboding pollutes the air. Darkness creeps around the furniture, reflections loiter in the mirrors and private lives hide beneath the floorboards. You can almost see the artist waiting in the wings of the room, looking for a secret lost long ago in the shadows of time.

What makes this exhibition such a feast for the eyes is not just the aesthetic pleasure the artist gives us by indulging her love for painting, but the impenetrable truths that emerge from looking into the past and finding the future. Everybody has a family album that may, to some extent, look like somebody else’s. But Wåhlstrand captivates her audience with an ambiguity particular to the process of revisiting the same image over and over again until it starts to look like it belongs to another world. We are thrust into time, washed onto the shore of existence by seductive waves of Indian ink.

Time and Memory draws us into a contemplative space of quiet pleasure and possible remorse. The palpable tension produced between the work of Edefalk and Wåhlstrand is utterly compelling, and the two artists complement one another with a carefully observed distance. If the past seems tried and tested, then this exhibition provides an insightful resurrection of lost time. Just follow the path around the corner, and into the abyss.