‘THE OVERWHELMING FEELING IN THAT SPACE IS ONE OF SADNESS AND I WANTED TO MAKE A PIECE THAT WAS ABOUT HOW I FELT THERE'
commission. but then the church has always had an ambiguous fascination with sensuality. Just look at its langttage and iconography: passion doubles up to mean suffering. the heavenly orgasm of immaculate conception takes many visual forms. and ecstasy as an elevated state of religious fervour is so close to its sexual sister that the boundaries hltrr in a white haze.
lintering the sudden hush of Old St Paul's a quietness is fused with a coldness that hangs about the air of this lofty stone church. Through a dim archway a fiash of white canvas appears. The almost abrtrpt shift from urban noise to sacred peace catches you off guard. Richard Holloway. the former Bishop of lidinburgh. was once rector here and Watt tells me he has likened his first experience of the church to an alcoholic remembering when they had their first drink because it had such a strong impact on him. Watt had a similar feeling. ‘1 went in and it was qttite a funny day outside. It was late l‘estival time and I thought it was a remarkable space because it’s one of the few spaces you can walk in and feel completely cttt off from the outside world. So I looked around and really loved it and then went away. bttt all the time kept thinking about Old St Paul's because there’s something about the atmosphere of that space.‘
It's a modest church — subtly inspiring awe and devotion with tall. narrow clear glass windows and high vaulted roof. Inside the small memorial chapel Watt’s Still hangs 4x4m. suspended in air with painted folds of fabric gathering ever closer into the centre while a narrow space between each panel forms the shape of a dark cross. It’s profoundly affecting. In sortie ways it feels sombre. the whiteness of the fabric conjuring up associations with a death shroud. but then there’s something very pure about it. signalling the beyond.
And the setting frames it poignantly. On one side of the wall the names of the parish members who died in World Wars I and II are inscribed with the epitaph ‘They Shall (ir'ow Not ()ld As We That Are Left (irow Old. and on the other there‘s a gnarly iron cross that used to hang beside the gallows in the (irassmarket. It was the last thing that anyone who was condemned touched before they were hanged. ‘The overwhelming feeling in that space is one of sadness and I wanted to make a piece that was about how I felt there.~ says Watt. ‘The work has a strong physical force to it. I didn’t want to hang it on the wall because I didn't want it to be grounded in that way ~- the suspensions really important and when I look at the painting it seems like it‘s moving.‘
It really does. Although the church‘s sturdy walls protect from the high wind outside. a sense of it is still present with the shifting. blustering light suddenly illuminating the painting making it alive
in its solemn surroundings. There is a kind of
devotion in its largeness and care. And if you could see Alison Watt you would be even more amazed: she‘s very. very wee. ‘lt‘s the most physical and the most technically difficult thing I‘ve done.‘ she says. ‘lt was certainly completely draining. I‘m such a small person and it was so vast physically going up and down the scaffolding there it completely exhausts you. So I felt extremely low when I finished it. I felt it had taken everything I had to give.‘
Watt has worked with unerring dedication since winning the National Portrait (iallery’s annual
competition while still a student at (ilztsgow School of
Art in l987. Ten years later she held an exhibition at the l‘rurtmarket (iallery. introducing fabric alongside nudes. and most recently moved further towards
(If? a» [r ' i
abstraction in Shift at the Scottish National (iallery of
.\fodern Art. This is her first installation piece. but rather than providing clarity. age and experience are posing more questions. ‘It takes me a long time to absorb my own work and the more I make work the
more I’m finding it ptrzzling. When you're younger
you think you know things so well and I think that‘s absolutely what happened in my paintings — the more I make them the less I understand what I‘m doing. It's exciting btrt it's terrifying as well because not understanding something that you spend all your time doing is quite hard. At the moment the only thing I can say is that it is what it is.‘
What it is. is awesome. It‘s brave and confident even though its left the artist with doubt. There is something fittineg on the cusp of purity and sensttality - a tension that is sustained perfectly in the reverential peace of Old St Paul‘s. Alison Watt has poured her whole self and energies into the work -— and for one of this country's leading contemporary painters it is. funnin enough. an act of old-fashioned sacrifice and devotion.
Still hangs at Old St Paul’s, Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh until Sat 25 Sep; a solo show of new works by Alison Watt is at the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, Thu 5 Aug-Sat 11 Sep.
Textures and symbols have been used to elicit sensuality throughout the history of art. Here are a few examples explored and examined.
Fra Angelica - Altarpiece of the Annunciation, 1430-1432 The Virgin Mary. clad in rich blue cloth. is struck by a golden light from heaven — God is impregnating her and the shimmery rays represent the dizzy orgasmic moment. In the background. images of mortal fecundity — flowers. buds. lush greens - ab0und.
Vermeer - Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665 Now made famous by one Scarlett Johansson, Vermeer's enigmatic girl turns her head to face us with parted lips and expectant eyes. A silk turban combines with the glint of the large pearl hanging from the girl's ear to create lustrous textures. In 17th century Holland the ear was considered the most vulnerable and sensitive area of the body through which men COuld seduce with whispers and kisses.
JD Ingres - Odalisque wit Slave, 1842 It‘s not just the open. Curved posture and rapt expression of the woman in lngres' picture that creates senSLiality here — it's all the adornments: transparent fabric entwined around her legs. the soft pearls against her neck. a fan. hookah pipe. perfume scents on the posts. rich blue and gold silks and deep. glowing reds and Oranges. All conjure a heady image of oriental eroticism.
[Evy Georgia O’Keeffe - Black Iris, 1906 Petals of an iris open up in mysterious fiSSures ~ delicate and translucent at the top. dark and strong at the bottom. The purpley hues fuse into blackness in the central abyss. Can you guess what it is yet?
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