Rachel Howard: The Painter
This morning, at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, a new exhibition was unveiled: Rachel Howard: Repetition is Truth – Via Dolorosa. It will be the first time that this series of paintings, commissioned by Hirst in 2005, will be shown in the UK.
On the eve of her first solo show in 2015, Howard was described by the Guardian as “one of the best British artist’s you haven’t heard of”. Three years later, she has three major shows currently on and is garnering more and more recognition. Howard has been in the spotlight for three years now and is very much the artist of the moment. “This is all very well,” you may say, “but who is she? And why should I care about her?”
Howard, who was born in 1969, hails from County Durham and grew up on a farm near a mining town called Easington Colliery. The importance of origins should never be underestimated and Howard herself notes that “that landscape is in [her] DNA”; indeed, she surprised herself upon realising that she had settled down in Gloucestershire rather than returning to the North of England. However, it was at Goldsmiths, in 1988, that the 19-year-old Howard would encounter the man who was to have a dramatic impact on her life, as she was to have on his, Damien Hirst.
To those familiar with Contemporary British Art, the place, Goldsmiths, and the time, 1988, are of great significance. These are the coordinates in time and space at which the YBAs (Young British Artists) were born.
Howard was just a year or two behind the major figures of Hirst and Lucas at Goldsmiths. She admitted in a recent interview with the Telegraph that, at the time, she had thought Hirst was just “a cocky northerner”, albeit one who knew a lot about painting, and that YBA, far from being a phenomenon, was “just a lot of people who were friends and were all skint, having fun putting on exhibitions”.
Soon after graduating, Howard took a job in Hirst’s studio as his assistant and was, at the time, his only assistant. She worked on his now famous “spot paintings” and was described by Hirst as, “the best person who ever painted spots for me … The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by her.” Howard’s output in these early years earnt her the reputation of “the woman who actually does Damien Hirst’s art”. She describes hers and Hirst’s relationship as “symbiotic”: she had been a waitress at the time and he needed somebody to paint spots. She took the job and worked in Hirst’s studio for three years and got front row exposure to the art world while she saved money to start painting for herself.
Howard had her first child in her twenties and declined interviews for years, while the YBAs employed shock and awe to garner publicity and fame she was developing her artistic style and ideas. Now, almost 20 years later, their relationship has come full circle with Hirst providing the means and Howard in the spotlight.
Repetition is Truth was commissioned by Hirst before he even had space to exhibit it, a very generous gesture and facilitated in kind by Howard, this is the only work she has ever done on commission. Even for an old friend such as Hirst, there were important caveats: Howard had the right to renege on the commission at any point and destroy the works should she choose. She is the first female artist to be shown at Newport Street and, for a time, was the only woman represented by her gallery, Blain|Southern.
Repetition is Truth – Via Dolorosa could be one of Howard’s seminal series. This is the great homecoming for a series of paintings that are bound to the tradition of art history in a number of ways. The Via Dolorosa is a street in the Old City of Jerusalem walked by Jesus on his way to mount Calvalry. Thus, this series becomes Howard’s Stations of the Cross and recalls the series completed around 50 years ago by the American Abstract Expressionist, Barnett Newman.
Like Newman, Howard is an atheist, and, also like Newman, the canvases are dominated by a sense of vertical motion: a vertiginous feeling of downwards movement; of weight; and of gravity. However, rather than Newman’s abstract rifts, Howard situates her series within modernity with the marked attention to the form of a box.
This box recalls a now infamous image widely circulated in 2004 of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, an Iraqi man, who, hooded and standing on a box in cruciform position, was tortured by American soldiers. Howard took particular notice of the box, the suggestion of the plinth and the elevation of a subject. In the press release for the exhibition she explains: “The box is almost like a plinth – I was thinking about the cross, the Crucifixion, and how it related to this box as a twenty-first century place of horror, humiliation and human rights atrocities, and I couldn’t help but connect the two.” Accompanying the 14 vast paintings that trace the varying intensity and sense of the abject translated by the treatment of the box is a study of the 2005 image of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi.
Howard’s paintings are often vast and resonate with a tension and violence between subject and the ‘physicality of her process’. She attacks the paint as she works, disturbing the layers with solvents, successive layers or even a sander. The intensity of such a relationship to the worked surface creates an intimacy, an intimacy that is unsettling amongst the violence of the process, this is particularly prevalent in her current exhibition at Blain|Southern, Der Kuss (The Kiss).
The title of the exhibition, The Kiss, suggests a tenderness and intimacy, of love or betrayal, but the feelings translated by the works on display are undoubtedly ones of violence.
Violence permeates, but it is underpinned by the pervasive presence of this intimacy that can find no way to hide from the invasive voyeurism of our eyes. Perhaps the most unnerving of the paintings on display at Blain|Southern are the four large canvases entitled On Violence (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter). In these canvases, patterns that recall curtains or carpets find themselves submerged and surrounded by a dense mélange of redness, of blood. Spring, for example, is dominated by a motif of nursery-rhyme figures while Autumn is a mesh of stylised leaf patterns and Summer an abundance of roses.
The violent and the quotidian, quotidian violence, the inseparability of violence and the banal. These are the resonant forces at play within the canvases; they describe the half-destroyed buildings of Syria and the traces of domestic existence that remain observable, the child’s bedroom with patterned nursery-rhyme wallpaper torn asunder and left vacant.
Howard professes: “Not all my paintings are about violence, but if you’re paying attention to what’s happening in the world, it’s something you can’t ignore.”
Repetiton is Truth – Via Dolorosa is on display at the Newport Street Gallery between 21 February – 28 May and Der Kuss is on display at Blain|Southern between 24 January – 17 March.