May 28, 2024

Rachel Howard: Folie à Deux, Blain|Southern

Blain|Southern, the bright, light, glass-fronted space on Dering Street, is currently home to nine new works by British artist Rachel Howard. Dealing with the ‘madness of two’, the exhibition presents the painter’s recent exploration of the clinical definition and shifting perception of a psychosis induced by an intimate relationship. The glossy, sumptuous works hover somewhere between figuration and abstraction; in turn, the experience of the show floats somewhere between rational comprehension (this is an illness) and simmering disquiet (this is people, this is us).

Howard is not shy in exploring the rawest, darkest and most intense manifestations of folie à deux: a diptych, Sisters (2011) concerns the story of twins who consecutively threw themselves in front of a speeding car. Grey and white paint fractures apart on the canvas, neon paint and meaning seep through. The everyday is figured in the inclusion of a table and chair in Repossession (2011); this exhibition is a study of recognisable existence, the worrying intricacies of human mental experience. The emotional and physical response from within the symbiotic relationship is echoed faintly by the viewer at Blain|Southern. The works hit you. Bang.

The tiny work which lends its name to the exhibition occupies its own wall deep into the gallery space – a nude, pregnant figure reclines towards the viewer. The swelling stomach of the woman reduces the female body to the role of a host, her delicate face fading into insignificance. The central body is darkly articulated amidst streaming daubs of fluorescent acrylic. Howard, once the studio assistant to Damien Hirst, is a painter and not a female painter: the experience of womanhood is something that Howard possesses but is of perfunctory significance in the exhibition of this work. The central point of the pregnant woman – actually and representationally – is that it is the closest we get to the psychological and physiological truth of the symbiotic relationship.

The use of fluorescent paint recalls the central point in this show: that the psychological exploration is also one of instinctual, irrational ground; the viewer is instinctually seduced by the bright, horrible quality of the paint as a moth is drawn to the light. Howard’s material manipulation of the canvas is a humanising technique. It reflects both her preoccupation with unusual materials (including, as well, household paint) and the overbearing nature of the human psychosis explored here. Gravity produces the final painterly act, dragging paint down the surface of the canvasses, tearing at fixed edges and perspectives, unsettles.

Howard aligns the controlled and uncontrolled act of painting on canvas – the dripping, pulling, smearing of her materials – with the physical, tactile reality of the viewer in the gallery. In doing so, the boundary of our own mental landscape and the notional world of that group psychosis collide. Go and see this show before it closes, but go on your own.

Blain|Southern, W1S 1AL, until 22 December

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