Sarah Giles

Critical Context

The Call of Silence

Sarah Giles - An Appreciation By ROBIN DUTT

One of the most challenging things for a painter might be said to have the ability to convey personality. When the person, let alone any potential personality has been removed, it becomes a task and not merely a challenge. And yet, in Sarah Giles' paintings - analysed individually or taken collectively - as frozen, multifarious, mixed moments of an unclear narrative (with a definite agenda) her keen ability to imbue objects, sections of rooms, battles between types of light and opposing textures, shows a rare talent and one also full of a radiant humility.

By focusing her attention on the incidental elements that make up the every day of most of our lives, she instils with personality, their several and individualistic character traits. By an ice cube isolation, forcing us to consider the inanimate object of the work which of course, immediately, becomes the subject, we are invited to recall our own especial memories on which we, or circumstance have often shut and indeed, locked the door. We often leave things behind - willingly, needfully - some elements being too painful or complex to face again. But they always remain within and only require the merest shove-prompt to become tangible once again. The fragrance of a flame, the flash of a colour, a snatch of a partially told story.

And of course, there are many reasons for this to have happened in the first place.

Objects in isolation because of this isolation, are often more voluble than those which have been arranged in a specific manner - no matter how so achieved, with the most artful, studied negligence. Whilst, of course one could regard Giles' paintings as still life studies, it might be rather foolhardy and frankly, inaccurate to describe them as such. These are objects, not arranged to create an efficacious ensemble or assemblage. Even if they are solitary, the thoughts behind are not. These are ordinary things, things with a sense of inescapable tragedy and loss and poignancy. But why?

Are a two-bar fire (significantly turned off though plugged in), an old Singer chair, a tea time trifle, a solitary, untouched cup of tea, immediately and necessarily suggestive of sorrow and loss?

One might argue that perhaps - and only perhaps - an older generation used to broken biscuits might realise the language of these objects far more than a more contemporary one. And if that is so, it certainly has not stopped Giles from exploring their mythic, silent potency, their power to sting memory into being. Even for an audience unfamiliar with the actual relevance of these things, their solitary nature demands we can - indeed, must face them. In an age when luxury is celebrated because merely, it can be bought and so made vulgar, the everyday ordinariness of things can at last and at least be a telling diversion.

These objects and so many others are sentinels of sorrow. 'This world', according to Horace Walpole, the English writer and connoisseur, is 'a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.' They represent things that are abandoned that are missed, people who, without knife, killed and those without guile that we have kissed. They speak dumbly-eloquently of how past generations used to do things and because of our love (or fear) of them we ignite in our own lives. Even though it can only be thus, each passing year locks them more surely into the past.

The Singer chair has a natural poignancy from its spreading base like the lotus webbed foot of some amphibian monster to its dour, hard wooden seat and back support, connected by a spine of blue steel. How many have created garments on this same chair, sewing seasons together, undervalued and overlooked? The tea-time trifle with the equal sponge sugar crystal-sprayed fingers, a cheap packet family treat which immediately brings the plastic artificiality of the industrial fragrance and prescribed look of the product itself to the fore. And indeed, with it, specific memories of family and specific moments, each object becoming a trigger to memory, each object an invitation to remember - perhaps those things one wants to forget.

The 'sixties 'phone table - such an ubiquitous piece of furniture in so many British post-war houses when a phone-call was almost an event - made more valuable because so many houses shared a party line - things unthinkable today and sadly for some, laughable and even, risible. For others, these are treasured souvenirs.

Souvenirs might be a way of encapsulating the symbolism of Giles' work. Usually, souvenirs are something that one might choose to remember a holiday. A dusty cache of beribboned love letters might be souvenirs too, even though that love faded and now is fled. Heirlooms - expensive ones at that - bequeathed or appropriated form never-visited and now dead relatives. But Giles' souvenirs, if one has at least allowed the possibility of seeing them in this way, are those (for the most part, unnoticed things, domestic necessaries, unremarkable, commonplace nothings which, especially when people are no longer there, acquire a strident, perhaps unexpected power and sorrow which makes them, voluble, valuable, silently powerful and intensely moving.

In Dorothy Parker's collection of poems, 'Sunset Gun' is the famous 'Bric a Brac'. In this poem she describes the seemingly worthless souvenirs, made with such care by lonely people to fill a moment or mark an instant. However much these objects come to typify and exemplify time, they are to Parker, sad, forlorn and heavy-hearted. And perhaps, is this not because they are infused with the octane of memory? A prayer cut on a pin, a model boat fitted into a bottle, a scrap of useless embroidery.

When not concentrating of the efficacy of the object itself and sometimes with one object's spatial relationship with another (either as direct juxtaposition or oblique harmony) Giles makes a foray into depicting the secrets of unremarkable and unremarked interiors. Here are corners where light and shadow do battle in suffocating, drowning dusks, a billow-sail of wispy net curtain, purblinding the arrogant day as two meagre-thin armchairs sit across from one another, like two friends, talking about old times. The almost bed and breakfast frigidity of a bed with an oval-topped dressing table - both objects of furniture almost huddling tighter like suddenly discovered lovers. There.
These are her personalities.

But the most vital element that Giles does not lose in these 'bigger pictures' is that same sense of intense concentration. Chosen isolation and unexpected abandonment. These are the allies and enemies of regard.

Sarah Giles so understands that by a judicial placing of the object, much less the object itself, she can elicit a rush of unasked for nostalgia and attendant memory - and memory is almost always full of tears as the poet has it, the evening is full of linnets' wings.

There is a raw, edgy sense of the stage in Giles' work - each scene, seeming to suggest a soliloquy, not of course that there are any characters, as such. It is left to us to let the silent lines run through our minds and write, in part at least, an element of our own autobiographies.

ROBIN DUTT
Art Critic, Author, Lecturer
London, August 2007