Helen Nicholson

Huis clos series
First Draft West, Sydney; and CBD Gallery Sydney

Helen Nicholson's recent exhibition at First Draft Gallery continues her obsession with interiors. The group of works exhibited, entitled Huis Clos Series after a play by Jean-Paul Sartre in which a group of people are trapped in an inferno-like chamber, makes explicit the metaphorical relation between the interior and the mind. While for Sartre, Hell is other people Nicholson rearticulates Sartre's vision, making Hell the lavish setting itself.

But if to be trapped inside one's own head is normally associated with the expression of a kind of madness, such madness is not illustrated or represented here, so much as implied by the ambivalences that result from collisions between various stylistic and thematic elements. The madness of these works lies ultimately in their simultaneous will towards persuasiveness and muteness. This strategy of rhetoric and silence, however, should not be confused with a strategy of seduction. From the outset these works repulse as much as they attract. There are four sub-series in this recent selection of work: Interiors, the Madonna Inn Series, the Bolshoi Ballet Interior and the Lagerfeld Interiors. Each engages a serialist aesthetic of repetition and difference. The Lagerfeld interiors might be taken as exemplary of Nicholson's concerns. This is a series of baroque lounge settings painted in rich, inconsistent shades of red. The images are decorative and intricate yet, with their simultaneous coarseness and delicacy, they refuse the viewer the enjoyment of comfortable perusal.

If the overlay of repetition and difference produces an aesthetic that easily gives rise to the concept of the uncanny-by way of the compulsion towards repetition, the effect of doubling, and more precisely, through the insertion of the strange into what was once familiar-then the Lagerfeld interiors double this again by simulating familiarity (or dissimulating unfamiliarity). The room is reminiscent of the interior shots from Resnais' film Last Year at Marienbad, both in its appearance and its appeal to memory. Its significance is at once asserted and dissimulated: asserted in the sense that the interior is presented as a place, a space, a stage for an event that is about to occur, or the site of a trauma long since past; and dissimulated by the disclosure that these paintings are produced from a magazine photograph of a Lagerfeld interior. If then these images evoke a notion of memory, it is only in the sense of memories of events never experienced. The association between memory and the uncanny is thus reworked.

As repetitions of a single photograph of a Lagerfeld interior these paintings, in Warholesque fashion, also invert the accepted relation between art and photography-here one photograph is infinitely repeated not in an attempt to homogenise and disperse but rather to differ, deform and make abject. While the relation to Warhol is undeniable, the work equally refers to a number of other modernist pedagogues. Iconography aside, the application of paint is reminiscent of Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. Nicholson uses very watery consistencies of paint that are absorbed into the canvas. But first she paints the outlines of depicted objects with a worn-out soft-haired brush so that the coarse outlines are shakey and 'badly' formed, retaining nothing of the precision usually associated with the baroque arabesques of her subject matter. She then uses a flatbed technique to apply the washes so that they both bleed over the outlines and dry unpredictably. While this has the effect of spilled paint, it is far removed from the controlled drips of, for example, Pollock. Rather than privileging the act of painting over the object to be represented, Nicholson's inconsistent use of paint actually defies the object. It works against the resolution of the object, while at the same time representing it. It is strictly anti-modulation.

It is Nicholson's borrowing of rhetorical forms from what are perceived to be conflicting schools of American modernism and her simultaneous use of strategies that are both cool and hot (Pop and Abstract Expressionism) that indicate her ambivalence to painting itself. This is amplified by her cartoonish or grotesque depiction of objects that are usually loaded with sensuousness and voluptuousness, and a use of paint which negates these very qualities. Yet surprisingly this style of painting itself manifests the beauty and delicacy that it seeks to destroy in the finished object.