THERE are 80 stairs leading to Celia Paul’s studio, the fourth floor of an apartment block overlooking the forecourt of the British Museum. It is appropriate, therefore, that this exhibition is in Gallery II at Victoria Miro’s Wharf Street Gallery which is to be found at the top of a dramatic staircase numbering 72 steps, stretched on a continuous line.
For many years, Paul’s mother used to climb the steps to this studio to sit for her. She would arrive exhausted and out of breath, as did I after climbing eight stairs fewer, but then would pray in silence as she sat for her daughter, the air being charged with prayer. This exhibition is no less charged with prayer, as, although she is not conventionally religious, prayer, Paul says, is still in her bloodstream. A strong sense of peace emanates from her work as she juxtaposes direct observation with mysticism.
The peace that emanates is hard won, as is the seclusion found in her studio amid the complexities of the relations she paints. Movement and colour in the form of drips, streaks, scrapes, swirls, and globules of paint busily cover the surface of her canvases, and yet their relations one with another fashion contemplative images that cohere and convince. She paints peace, while painting in peace, despite the disruptions of guilt and grief which arise from her past; a new day, a new dawn is depicted undefined by the past. She and her female sitters are strong, waiting peacefully, being themselves, no longer defined by the men in their lives, whether archbishops, artists, bishops, or philosophers.
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord,” is the prayer that would most readily characterise these pieces, as the emergence of light is often Paul’s subject, resolution, and goal. A halo effect surrounds Paul’s features in Self Portrait with Narrow Mirror. The sun, hidden by a dominating dark central tree, streams rays of illuminating light on The Brontë Parsonage, lit from without among sombre blues and greys. The light in Kate in White, Spring 2018, overwhelms and overawes, spilling over and enveloping the sitter. Breaking, Santa Monica provides a word and image for the peaceful light which breaks through, emerging and emanating from her canvases.
God is in the light that pierces the darkening gloom within these works. My Mother and God is 167.3cm of dark canvas stretched upwards from the still image of her sitting mother praying. Those prayers call forth the thin band of yellow light entering the space at the apex, apotheosis and apogee of the canvas.
The exhibition accompanies the publication of Paul’s memoir, Self-Portrait, in which she makes the initial statement that she is not a portrait-painter, but an autobiographer and chronicler of life and family. In the memoir, she paints in prose, an equivalent to the poetry of her paintings. In both her memoir and her paintings there is a sense of resolution among the chaos of relations, a calm acceptance of things coming together, that all shall ultimately be well. This sense is vividly captured in My Sisters in Mourning, 2015-16, where Paul’s sisters, after the death of their mother, sit together in still repose, waiting.
“Celia Paul” is at Victoria Miro Gallery II, 16 Wharf Road, London N1, Tuesday-Saturday, until 20 December. Phone 020 7336 8109. www.victoria-miro.com