michelle charles art

‘Michelle Charles’ - Dore Ashton

milk on the covers of books
“There are two ways of knowing a thing; the first turns around it, the second gets into it; the first type of knowledge is relative; the second absolute …”

Henri Bergson, Introduction à la Metaphysique

I suppose that objects are everything that are not us. We live amongst them in profusion – often in passive unawareness. Yet, they inhabit, even constitute the texture of our world. Michelle Charles has for years reminded us of their ubiquity, their strangeness, their power to be.

Most of her motifs concern inanimate things. But some, like her recent studies of flies, move stealthily into our ken; they, too, are things that are not us. Because Charles’ imagination is haunted by metaphor, her painted things are compelling and allusive. The whole world in a grain of sand; the natural and unnatural world as it impinges; sight and insight, all there. If she paints knitted things, they are like the sea, like the winds, like landscapes in which a knitting needle is horizon.

By the closest, most intense scrutiny, Charles not only inaugurates metaphors, she inaugurates form. It would not be too much to say that she ‘gets into’ her image, as Bergson noted, seeking an absolute like an unabashed metaphysician. (I stress the word seeking, with the knowledge I have of many painters who, like Penelope, weave and unravel, day and night, and are well aware that they will never finish with their quest.)

For a long time I have known that words are quite useless when it comes to painting. But sometimes the words of poets are analogous to the paint of painters, at least obliquely. If we find kinship, then we are one step closer to the painter’s motives.

When I think of Charles’ work, that I have watched for many years, I am often carried on her current to certain poets, above all Wallace Stevens, whose humour so often turns serious, as in ‘The Comedian As The Letter C’, an early poem with the line ‘Here was the veritable ding and sich, at last’. And his title of a late poem, ‘Not Ideas About the Thing, But the Thing Itself’.

But above all, one of his most discussed poems, ‘Anecdote of the Jar’.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
There it was,
‘gray and bare’

…as the poet says, and centered as so many of Charles’ objects are:
‘It took dominion everywhere.’

Although Charles’ universe is composed of light and shadow, as all painting is, the thing itself that she depicts is often like Stevens’ Tennessee jar. It takes dominion everywhere. Charles is not alone in the history of art, using objects to talk about the things of this world, or that world, or the universe itself. Above all, to talk about how light enlightens. And how color colors. You only ever catch a glimpse, she says.

So often painters in history have labored to bid the glimpse to stay, and in the interest of clarity, have used objects that are, so to speak, still. Jars, glasses, urns, cloths, tables, windows, fruits, vegetables, chops, clusters, and all the spaces between.

The history of still-life goes back and back, and offers the painter a great treasury of images of how things appear (and disappear). There is not a memorable still-life in art history that cannot be seen as allegorical. The imagination takes care of that. ALLOS: other.

Despite the aplomb with which Charles’ objects stand before us, they initiate thoughts of other things, sometimes as obscure as a distant light, sometimes as clear as a glass of water.

Dubuffet told us that his love for common things in his art was an ‘attempt to bring disparaged values’ into the light. ‘I cannot get over the feeling that the things closest to us, most constantly in sight, have also always been the least noticed, that they remain the least known, and, that if one is searching for the key to things, one has the best chance of finding them in the things which are most copiously repeated.’

Charles’ work has sometimes been seen as obsessive, and sometimes as serial in intent. But I see it as her passionate attempt to gauge the place – literally – of objects in our lives. Her focus is on how we arrange memory, or as she sometimes calls it, the ‘residue’ of memory.

Each shimmering glass of milk or water is an autonomous reminder of how volatile our memory can be. And how, inevitably, our regard slips off into reverie. Her means: viscous paint, thin washes, impastos. Materials that respond to her impulse to establish the character of what she sees.

If she wishes to seize the character of yarn, she wields her fluent paint, with all its richness of half-tones, to tell of meshing, woveness and enwoveness. If she becomes entranced with the shape of things, as she does in her witty evaluations of the common hotwater bottle, her brush can move from dense matter to the thinnest of washes, and her imagination moves from the thing itself to its metamorphosis into a pure shape.

The transmogrification into an ominous black (fish? kite?) or into a fragile ancient glass vial, is quite marvellous, in the way that the poet André Breton enshrined that word. The same can be said of her airy renditions of the common pan scrub.

Although Charles has said more than once that her work is about paint, I take it that it is shorthand for saying that it is about how paint can translate the universe – always a mysterious business about which words are hard to summon. About light and shadow: Charles has experimented with photograms. This is the ultimate act of disembarrassing oneself of obstacles.

The photogrammist, as Man Ray demonstrated, gets straight to the point, and in the course of things, proves that there cannot be a straight-to-the-point attitude since even the absence of the machine – the camera – does not guarantee a pure image, only myriad degrees of lights and shadows, and the delightful surprises of emergence.

Photograms are essentially about things as transformed by light into mirages, hallucinations, estranged from the customary. But so are paintings. In many of her recent studies of the common household fly, Charles deliberates on the fragile, translucent lights of the wings, and the density of the bodies.

For me, her renditions of the fly are not exactly natural history, but also not exactly unnatural. When I conjure up a fly, I always see it on a windowpane, and am hypnotized by its meandering course. In that irregular journey, the wings reflect glass reflections. For all their wonderful simplicity, Charles’ images of a fly invariably suggest that strange trajectory in light and shadow.

Here she uses all her painterly resources to tell us how very complicated this painterly vision can become, sometimes in sequences of tones and half¬tones, sometimes accented, as when she economically introduces color to tell of the burning ember of the fly’s head.

Who but the ancient Chinese and Japanese brush painters would have thought of inspecting so closely the mysterious life of a fly? Or for that matter the quality of a plastic shopping bag? Whether a fly in transit or a glass resting uneasily on the shifting facets of a plastic shopping bag, Charles’ objects, or shall we say subjects, often become phantoms. They haunt.

For a very long time I have listened respectfully to the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, so wise in the things of the world. He understood that for a poet or a painter, ‘the world is not so much a noun as an adjective’, quoting the poet Milosz.

If I try to locate the most appropriate adjective for Charles’ oeuvre, I come up with the word iridescent, like drinking glasses, flies wings, bottles. I could easily transliterate Bachelard’s observations concerning the poet’s imagery into the paintings of Charles: The poetic image is an emergence from language; it is always a little above the language of signification.

Yes, that can be said of Charles’ paintings. There is a language of painting, and when used poetically, as Charles uses it, it does always arise a little above the depiction of the objects she scrutinizes.

Finally, Charles’ long experience with her painter’s language is expressed in terms that suggest spontaneity; a rush of exceptional enthusiasm. (Her voice, in person, when she speaks, is also modulated by a rush of words.) It requires great skill, great craft, to reduce an object to its essence in just a few swift strokes of the brush. Charles succeeds – again and again and again and again.

This catalogue essay was published by Kettle's Yard in conjunction with “Michelle Charles Kettle’s Yard”, in 2008.

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