Untitled painting (Günderrode; the unknown)

Sarah Cameron is a multi-award winning painter and photographer with an MFA from the Slade School of Fine Art and a BFA from Edinburgh College of Art. I commissioned this large, untitled piece at a time when Sarah was working, in conceptual terms, on paintings as repositories of emotions and, in technical terms, on the interplay between surface and depth.

In commissioning this painting, I didn’t want to constrain Sarah too much, as I wanted something that would fit within her development as an artist. My only specifications were the dimensions of the canvas (90cm x 150cm) and that Sarah should focus on “the unknown, as something positive.” We had been talking about the German writer and philosopher Karoline von Günderrode before she began work on this piece. As a result, the painting is also informed by her interpretation of my work on Günderrode.

The result is something that fits everything that I, personally, look for in a painting. I like my eye to keep moving, settling only transiently on areas of interesting colour and brushwork; I don’t like art to dictate too much, but to let the viewer’s imagination create and recreate what it sees. The piece is abstract, but provides enough hints and clues of shapes to prompt the viewer’s imagination to keep forming objects and landscapes. There are ideas of a cliff, mist, clouds, sky, faint architectural shapes that could be ruins. Sometimes the round shapes in the top right quarter of the painting look like the faces of robed figures; sometimes like rocks. In keeping with Sarah’s work relating to Romantic traditions, these shapes recall the rocks and cliffs in Caspar David Friedrich’s c.1801 “Rock Arch in the Uttewalder Grund.

These shapes in the top right-hand corner destabilise the painting and are part of what keeps the images unresolved. These are the most solid-looking, defined and heavy things in the piece, but there’s nothing substantial enough below them to provide support. They’re stationary and falling at the same time. They’re floating, but look too solid to float.

Across the painting, the layers of paint act like a veil, and it’s hard to sustain a focus on either the surface or on the illusion that something solid stands behind the shifting, light layer of pale pinks and greys. (The veil-like effect is partly textural, and unfortunately some of this is lost in the photograph.) As a result, the eye has to keep focusing and refocusing, always moving. Like in Sarah’s piece Friedrich’s Mountain, Botched Romance, there’s a “hole” in the middle of the painting: in this case, created by sanding hard through the layers of paint to the canvas behind them. This helps undermine attempts to interpret the thinner layers of pale paint near the surface of the canvas as either a mist or a veil; it reminds us of the materiality of the painting, that this is a two-dimensional object created in layers.

The interplay between solidity and insubstantiality, between surface and depth connote many of the concepts and tropes in Günderrode’s writings. There’s a ghost of antiquity in the suggestion of ruins, and a refusal to separate human forms from forms of nature. It captures Günderrode’s embrace of the continual dissolution and reconstitution of forms that she sees as fundamental to life. And it reminds us of the active role of our own organs of sensation, imagination and cognition in constituting the world we interact with. It suggests something underlying this world, something in motion that is sometimes on the edge of our understanding but, in the end, always remains unknown.

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