In an exhibition dominated by self-portraits and seascapes, Celia Paul demonstrates the virtues of subtlety and perseverance. By Joe Lloyd
Three self-portraits, a painting of her sister, a depiction of a room, and a seascape sequence: these are the components that combine to form the English painter Celia Paul’s Desdemona for Hilton by Celia at the Victoria Miro Mayfair. As modest as that may read, together they weave a quiet magic. Give Paul’s work time, and it can even thrill.
The exhibition follows Desdemona for Celia by Hilton at the Gallery Met, New York. A collaboration between Paul and the writer Hilton Als, organised in tandem with a production of Verdi’s Otello by the Metropolitan Opera, the New York exhibition used Paul’s work to explore the tragic figure of Desdemona, the protagonist’s doomed, isolated wife. Now, Victoria Miro has published a book of the same name, juxtaposing Paul’s paintings with texts from the artist and Als; the London exhibition, name inverted to betoken the friendship between the two figures, coincides with the book’s release.
As compelling as Shakespearean revisitings can be, however, the work displayed here is abundantly rich when taken on its own terms. A trio of self-portraits depicts Paul sitting in the same position, always wearing the same smock. Named after the month in which they were painted, they make a virtue out of small differences. Her face, understated and gnomic, rests as if deep in thought; her eyes gaze into something beyond the physical. Her garment, covered in shreds of paint, masterfully visualises the effects of light on colour. Although the delicately painted Paul almost appears to dissolve behind these clothes, the self-scrutiny is acute.