There is shadow under this red rock
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922
Claudia Carr’s paintings conjure sparse, light-dappled wildernesses that are at once prehistoric and post apocalyptic. On the surface, her scenes are redolent of the bleached savannahs and rocky wastelands of epic films, yet they are populated by an array of motifs – animals, cacti, sprigs of leaves – whose incongruous juxtapositions elicit a surreal and gently jarring sense of miniaturisation. In one painting, a camel stands behind a craggy form that gradually reveals itself as a piece of orange peel. Elsewhere, a white horse traversing a hazy grey expanse is dwarfed by fragments of screwed up paper and crumpled fabric. The works are based on artfully lit assemblages of small plastic animals and debris in the artist’studio, giving rise to a beguiling oscillation between the macrocosmic world of landscape painting and the microcosmic details of a still life.
Carr has described the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s film Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as epitomising the tension within her works, conflating expansive panorama with acute observations of details such as the circling of a fly around the butt of a gun. Her work also recalls the imagery of Salvador Dalí (itself informed by cinema) where rocky wildernesses are strewn with impossible agglomerations of objects, such as The Sublime Moment (1938) in which a telephone dangles from the branch of a tree and a plate of fried eggs curls elastically in on itself before a mountainous backdrop.
Yet Carr’s dioramic tableaux supplant the absurdist bombast of Dalí’s works with a subtler sense of spatial disjunction and subverted proportion. This undercurrent of incongruity in her paintings stems from an early fascination with the works of Fra Angelico, in particular The Flight into Egypt from the predella to the altarpiece at the San Marco convent in Florence (1438-1443). Carr has commented that “the awkwardness of early perspectival space made everything ‘a bit odd’ … It seemed that a palm tree was growing out of the donkey’s nose; a distant winding path swished like a tail out of the donkey’s rear”. 10.
In the same way, the creatures and foliage in Carr’s works seem natural enough at first glance, only gradually appearing out of proportion and disconnected. Her paintings simultaneously highlight the intricacy and suggestiveness of such throwaway materials. Carr has commented on the capacity for small objects to intimate far larger ones: “When you observe for hours on end (as you do when painting from life) a piece of dried orange peel or crumpled cloth they grow bigger and bigger, their planes and hollows becoming rock faces and caves (amongst other things).” 11.
The slippages in scale in Carr’s work are paralleled by chromatic shifts and tensions. Painted in a narrow range or greys and ochres, and occasionally punctured by a flash of orange peel or a russet leaf, her works distil light and shade into tentative fields of tone that recall Cezanne’s subtly variegated blocks of colour. In certain new works, the interstitial spaces that Carr evokes have edged increasingly towards abstraction: planes of thinly applied paint mass together into elemental structure, and the texture of the canvas is left showing through, turning our attention towards the material surface of the image. These works are close to the abstract experiments of Ben Nicholson involving minutely different ‘shades’ of white.
While suppressing pictorial narratives in favour of an exploration of space and the effects of light, Carr’s metonymic mises en scène invite the viewer to overlay their own associations (compare Eliot’s notion that “there may be much more in a poem than the author was aware of”). 12. Tropes of decay and renewal coalesce her paintings of saplings sprouting from rocks, aptly illustrating Eliot’s image of spring “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” The white horse in the midst of a barren landscape saturated with light calls to mind the myth of the Trojan horse (itself a model defying the rules of scale) on the plains outside the city.
Yet Carr’s paintings resist the projection of extended narratives by virtue of their fragmentariness. In this sense they are comparable to the pictorial similes of classical epic poems. Her paintings both appeal to and beguile the imagination, just as W.H. Auden’s poem ‘The Shield of Achilles’ nostalgically pursues classical images while denying their redemptive power (employing imagery that is highly evocative of Carr’s arid plains):
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead. 13
Carr’s paintings thus shadow forth an evocative yet strangely vacant realm dotted with polyvalent symbols that invite a mass of associations while resisting any single interpretation. Indeed, they embody Walter Benjamin’s idea of allegory as epitomised by a mass of accumulated ruins or fragments: “In allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape.”14.
10. Claudia Carr in interview with Jennifer Wakelyn, Tavistock Clinic Magazine, June 2008.
12. TS Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber, 1957), p. 31.
13. WH Auden, ‘The Shield of Achilles’, 1952.
14. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977). Quoted in Craig Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’, October, Vol. 12, Spring, 1980.