Anna McNay

Review of Sarah Muirhead: Bonded with guests Paula Rego & Leonor Fini at Leyden Gallery


Sarah Muirhead:

with guests Paula
Rego & Leonor Fini

Leyden Gallery

3 – 27 June 2015

Sarah Muirhead’s paintings are theatrical and visceral.
Photorealistic in their minute detail, they portray friends and acquaintances
whose jobs are physically expressive. Estlin Love is a trapeze artist, Amanda
is an actor, Kasia is a shibari artist and Ross is a model. Their personalities
are all completely entwined with what they do, how they move and what they look
like. This concept of entwinement – of there being this intrinsic bond between
occupation and self – led gallery director Adriana Cerne to come up with the
exhibition’s title, Bonded, a title which has resonances on other levels too,
in particular with the work Self Restraint.

painting is a double portrait of the shibari artist
Kasia, aka Skinny Redhead. Shibari literally means ‘to
tie’ and the practice involves an ancient Japanese form of artistic bondage.
Inherently a submissive practice, Kasia fascinated Muirhead because she works
alone, tying herself, without a master. For this, she needs absolute physical
strength and discipline and she is in full control of her body. The addition of
an inverted triangle in the centre of the painting is twofold: on the one hand,
it was an aesthetic addition to balance the composition, and, on the other
hand, it is a subversion of the female symbol, echoing Kasia’s subversion of
her art.

Another double portrait is
The Performer’s Apparition, in which actor Amanda Wass throws back her
head and peers around, open-mouthed, fearful. Muirhead explains: “The double
portrait reflects the idea of seeing one’s self, of duplicity and the need to
compartmentalise. We talked about feeling slightly separated from yourself and,
in a really basic, literal way, I wanted there to be two parts that were
reacting to each other in the composition but weren’t fully aware that the
other side was there.”

Amanda’s face is daubed white with face paint, a common
feature in Muirhead’s work. The shaven-headed, dark-skinned Alloysious in Rokeby has likewise used the paint to delineate the contours of his body. His
skin looks so textured and real that I am drawn to touch it. Close up, it is
almost pointilliste, with tiny daubs of blue and pink and yellow on top of the
underlying browns and blacks. Muirhead’s mark making is intricate and honest
and carries over to her series of biro drawings as well, where she works so
intently that she is able to build up shadows and fingerprints and almost
DNA-like detail on each strand of hair.

Muirhead often works with a projector to cast images across
her models, adding to the narrative and the complexity of her compositions. For Noble Savage and Earthly Delights, she used the central panel of Hieronymus
Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-04) to cast a cadence of prisms
across Estlin Love’s figure and, for Pacify Love, she used the FKA twigs music
video for the song Papi Pacify, in which a man stands behind the singer,
forcing his fingers into her mouth and pulling her head around in really slow
motion. For Muirhead, this captures the idea of obsession. The original image
gets lost, but it still outlines the contours of Estlin Love’s body. The
stripes actually result from the artist’s use of a slightly dilapidated projector,
which splits things into prisms, but it is a happy chance effect. “It’s a nice
way of exploring colour,” Muirhead says. “Actually having things divided into
yellows and blues and reds rather than just black and white and clean layers.”
It certainly poses a challenge for the artist, as she can no longer paint
either the projected image or the skin as she knows it to be underneath. She
has to somehow capture the essence of both, without the resulting image falling
flat. This is something only a talented painter could achieve – and Muirhead
achieves it with flying colours.

Also published on DIVA online


all © the artist

Self Restraint

acrylic on canvas


The Performer’s Apparition

acrylic on canvas


Earthly Delights

acrylic on canvas


Pacify Love

acrylic on board