michelle charles art

‘The Glass of Water’ - Charlotte Gould

“L'eau (qu'il contient) ne change presque rien au verre, et le verre (où elle est) ne change rien à l'eau…”

The water (which it contains) does almost nothing to the glass, and the glass (which contains it) does not alter the water.

Francis Ponge, “The Glass of Water” 1961

“To say a lemon is yellow is as strange as glass is transparent.”

Emmanuel Hocquard, L’Invention du verre, 2003
The Invention of Glass, 2012. Translation Rod Smith and Cole Swensen

Michelle Charles spent twenty years working in the United States. In the mid 1990s, her New York studio was one block away from the World Trade Center and every day, she would watch the constant flow of people rushing to work in the financial district.

At that time, she was also teaching at The New School For Social Research, and when its librarians decided to discard a batch of withdrawn books on economics, she had an inkling that it could be worth rescuing them.

For years, they just sat there in her studio, until she started painting medicine bottles on them, and, later on, bars of soaps. The works on books she is presenting at England & Co. are part of a series entitled “Milk on Economics Books” and feature an object which is part of the repertoire she has come to build over the years: the drinking glass.

In this series, the transparent glass is turned opaque up to the point where milk has been poured into it. The books, today mere discarded blocks of uniform colour filled with impenetrable economic theories, become the medium unto which a reflection on the different degrees of transparency takes place.

The books which have been saved from the pulp mill and pinned up to the walls should have served as guidebooks to contemporary life, instead they now bear Charles’s painterly endeavours to capture the fleeting moments when light traverses glass at a certain angle and is refracted by it.

Some of the glasses’ faceted surfaces are an aesthetic statement, a kind of cubism which adds to the fractured vision that glass and liquid already imply. The almost calligraphic style in which she allows their clarity to appear is so assured, it alleviates the fleetingness of time and the uncertainty of human vision.

The whiteness of the milk, its confident wholesomeness, provide a comforting answer to a question which has not been asked. When Charles moved back to London in 2001, the London School of Economics became a new provider of withdrawn books.

Michelle Charles’s use of brushstrokes is even more economical in the upturned glasses she paints on paper. This time, the glasses do not serve their function as receptacles. Now, they are vessels defined by the void they enclose. They are mundane, hollow, and piled up one on top of the other, therefore eminently breakable. And yet, it is light, rather than their precarious stacking, which makes them unstable objects of vision.

The simplicity and eloquence of their rendering on paper is not an attempt, however, to grasp a story, a narrative of time passing and of the successive lights of day. Charles is wary of the beautiful English picture. She works on series, not as attempts at grasping some unattainable truth or beauty, but because each picture in the series is an affirmation of presence.

Attention paid to the particulars of the object means it does not disappear behind its essence. By choosing to create such series, Charles denies the possibility for an authoritative voice to decide what the last word is on the object represented.

The crystal balls series, either on photograms or on paper, started in 2009. They are also glass receptacles, but not of liquids, of the future, or at least of images we would like to read as previsions. In the photograms, Charles paints them in light, in a dark room, from memory. They are almost abstract, allowing the viewer to project other images unto them.

Crucially, they respond to the context of the 2008 demise of Lehman Bros and the financial crisis which subsequently swept global financial markets. Their particular transparency this time hinting at uncertainty and the delusion of thinking one is able to predict what the future holds.

Clearly, not one of the myriad economics books coming on and off the shelves of university libraries had been able to foresee that the world economy was crumbling. While we would like to hold on to what is familiar and safe – the indisputability of market forces, a glass of milk – their fleetingness is actually what makes them part of human experience.

Michelle Charles’s different series of paintings or cameraless pictures adopt a parallel economy in which there is no entropy in repetition. When she comes back again and again to the same glass surfaces and empty or half-full vessels, she does not exhaust the possibilities for representing them.

Their interaction with light makes them unique each and every time. Her working economy is not that of the search for the “pretty picture”, an exclusive process which gets rid of trials and excess. None of her individual pictures is redundant.

The recurrence of the same subject does not exhaust possibilities: there is always a different glass and a different light, the world is rich, maybe not in the economic sense of the term, but because it is always renewed in life and in art.

By focusing on the singular object and its elusive presence to the artist’s eye, Michelle Charles addresses the anxieties a world ruled by finance imposes on us. The economy of her strokes, the sustainability of her series, the quiet confidence of her vision, all are stances against entropy, exhaustion and redundancy.

This essay accompanied the exhibition Michelle Charles "Shape of Light" England & Co. London.

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