|Zig Zag, Clarissa Upchurch|
Budapest is a city I am love with and this piece is to some degree a love poem addressed to her vision of the place. I want to praise the vision because of its power and sadness, because of its sense of lost narrative, a narrative of lost people and lost histories. I want to praise it for its distance and fear, and for the way in which it implies narrative of a cinematic nature but without imposing any melodramatic narrative structure on its design. Its subjects, whether these are windows, balconies, doorways, fleeting human figures or moving cars, occupy the same post-Baudelairean terrain as the work of the story-boardists. Like the flâneur-turned-detective she catches things in flight - one set of early drawings traced a flight path round a particular apartment block – and sets a distance between them and us, so that our engagement with them remains intriguing and conjectural, as with a highly wrought story-board of a story of guesses and traces. In the meantime the pictures shimmer like Morandi’s still-lives, in a kind of metaphysical heat-haze. Things refuse to settle.
King Vidor’s crowds have disappeared from Upchurch’s work, but not without scent or trace. They made the city then retreated, some into rooms, some into the earth as the dead, and some into statuary as monuments and emblems. A few of the vulnerable living are seen hurrying or watching cars hurry down steep vistas. In other picture statues heave and pose under construction workers’ drapery. They are trying to assert their own place in this busy emptiness. Domes and towers in her ‘Icons’ series seem to revert to nature, like a mixture of tree, fire and face. The staircases are continually echoing to feet descending into cellars or rising into attics. The courtyards swim in their own deep reflections, and men in swimming pools stare towards us from the echoey water. Echo is the natural speech of the region because echo is what remains. The craft virtues of Upchurch’s work lie in draughtsmanship and painterliness. In this respect they are perfectly traditional, albeit in the broad clothes of Neo-Expressionism with Kiefer, and even Baselitz somewhere in the background. Her work is contiguous to theirs and overlaps a touch. But its positioning – quiet yet obsessive – is original and occupies a peculiar yet perfectly contemporary hinterland. It is in one of those places, on that shifting ground, where the endangered species of painters may prosper and survive. For that alone it is worth praising despite the fact that it seems to lie outside the range of debate about contemporary art, in that it is neither outwardly ironic nor specifically intellectual in its visual argument. I would want to place it closer to the centre by virtue of what it takes from and what it gives to the scope of cinematic narrative. I want to read it in terms of cinema as much as of painting because that way I can explain what I feel to be its relevance.
In one of the ‘Film’ series, ‘Film V’ a figure with its back to us is about to cross a narrow street, against a line of smeary cars, towards a solid wall of tenement blocks with deep arched doorways and thrusting balconies. Light and shadow between them have eaten parts of the buildings away. The full anthropomorphic palette of eyes and open mouths animates the street. There is a kind of hunger in the tall pedimented windows, in the overhanging brow of the eaves. We know we are in a big city, which might be as much in Italy as in Kafka land. The political history of the inhabitants is hidden yet evident in the clip of the implied movie where the man crosses the street, enters the arch and disappears, while the cars move forward or stop and our detective hero steps out into the very streets where Liberty might once have straddled the barricades. The politics of the pre-1989 world intrudes into the present in the form of half-remembered film. The very fact that one is tempted to construct fictions that partake both of romance and realism, of fantasy, history and of distance, suggest a literary context, but the literature is elsewhere. It is in the unmade movie for which this section of story-board is a functional underpinning. It is lodged precisely in that gap where irony finds it hard to reach, if only because the films have never ceased to haunt us and it is hard being ironic about something that will not stay still.