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Primarily a painter and printmaker, Sally L'Estrange claims a strong identification with the various populist movements in art history, proceeding from, for example, the ex-veto tradition of Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century Italian art, up to and including Pop Art. This was evident in her most recent exhibition, One Year, although more patent links with Pop Art have been demonstrated graphically in previous exhibitions.
One Year witnessed a relatively dramatic change of direction in L'Estrange's art making. Firstly her scale has shifted to yield far smaller and denser compositions. Secondly, the format has been greatly simplified. This is apparent if we consider the more complex relations between paintings and, for example, the files of press clippings that the artist has constructed for previous shows, or even the diptych format which she has employed in the past.
An artist often misread as being intensely political and/or expressionistic, it would seem that these designations are not especially helpful in an understanding of her aims. As L'Estrange comments, "I am interested in the clash between meaning and empathy, or the possibility of public and private relationships within an image". The tension generated by such a clash was possibly more identifiable in the earlier diptyches, for example, where L'Estrange juxtaposed an overtly recognizable image of a public figure like Aldo Moro, with another image, bearing a meaning which was much more poetic and personal, and apparently more closed than the public one. Yet we still find a latent tension, albeit down played, and one that functions dynamically, in the paintings of One Year. It is as though L'Estrange has been able to abandon her previous complexity of format, whilst retaining the possibility of the clash of the two realms of meaning. It is almost a purifying impulse.
Although the format of works in One Year is consistently small there is a sense of the images' capacity to expand beyond their bounds, to burst beyond the picture edges which will ultimately not quite contain them. One example is Banana Flower 26/1/90 (almost all works in this cycle of paintings and prints are prominently dated): here the image is "choked", or loaded to saturation point, both via paint application, which is luscious and densely palpable, and via the canvas size with the image extending to all edges. The image might almost be the bleeding heart of Christ, and yet it is "just a banana flower after all", as L'Estrange says.
L'Estrange speaks of her interest in the "mute" quality achievable in an image. By this we are to understand an image that is laden with previously encoded signification from a more public realm and is marinated in romantic or allegorical and even archetypal connotations to the point that it can be interrogated no further. This proceeds logically from earlier work where she employed manipulated imagery generated from newspaper photographs, treating them with a neutrality of expression and making no attempt to project any particular meaning upon them. L'Estrange reaffirms this in One Year. She cites Jasper Johns' flags as an example of an image, or icon, already drenched in socially received meaning, which can also be invested with personal signification, and/or a painterly delight in process. Working in a somewhat different mode from the Pop artists who used received imagery from the non -personal , and indeed very public image bank of popular culture, in One Year L'Estrange asserts the personal resonances of observed reality from her own, selective style bank.
It is in the context of appropriating imagery that she expresses some concern about so-called postmodern art activity, while she obviously enjoys its capacity to generate a richness of pictorial resources. L'Estrange believes this activity privileges modes of interpretation to the detriment of modes of production or process, and feels that both need to be addressed. She would, therefore, argue for a "morality" within image selection , whereby the style bank is very carefully chosen, rather than randomly or defiantly plucked from the archives of picture making in general.
One can argue for something akin to the compression of the icon in the relative simplicity of forms evidenced in the works in One Year. There is a sense approximating a religious fervour to be discerned in the manner in which all the images have been lovingly painted. Further, the emphasis on the cycle of the olive trees is resonant with
Biblical associations. The chromatics of the Russian icon-predominantly red and black-which were often in evidence in L'Estrange's previous exhibitions, assert themselves here with verve in certain of the works. At moments memories of sun shining through stained glass windows are also evoked.
Tomatoes, guava fruit, macadamia nuts, passionfruit, figs, tamarillos and allied imagery constitute L'Estrange's basic vocabulary in One Year. Her garden is the trigger for her observed reality, upon which she has overlaid her personal or more "romantic" responses. This second reality is inevitably and necessarily more stylized. Strong graphic qualities are in evidence in many of the paintings as well as tense, but curiously harmonious colour sensibilities and paint manipulation. The prints attest to the artist's characteristic feeling for the graphic, and some are eloquently hand-coloured.
The inclusion of dates as a compositional as well as documentary device animates the works. This is especially true of such examples as O live O where the O functions as form and text, exuberantly so. In one of the paintings, Glove and
Tomatoes, there is an enjoyable tension between the markings on the vegetables and the possibility of their being the artist's (more abstracted) dating of the work. (She has not in fact dated it.) This painting transforms the representation of the obvious into something that is compositionally taut and slightly less familiar.
For the moment L'Estrange seems content in this fertile territory of "peace and plenty", as she has described it, although she is not about to rest on her laurels.