There were several kinds of mystery at play in this show of Graham Little’s new paintings, ranging from the beguiling to the softly perverse. There was the mystery of the women that appear in each piece, nine lunar nymphs posed in different rooms with choreographic exactitude. And there was the question of which era and where, exactly, is depicted, which can perhaps only be coyly answered. But most ticklish of all was just how Little circumvented all the critical snares that lay in wait for him with nimble assurance, coming off as neither a spellbound creep nor a playboy goofily enamoured with the sumptuous interiors found in bygone issues of House Beautiful, but a painter of rare and rather haunting elegance.
Those twin risks are stylishly overcome, sometimes even teased, but much of the work is more delicately disconcerting than humdrum depictions of fantasy would ever be. A sense of home is nowhere to be found in this collection. Instead, its moments of domestic reverie suggest lavishly re-created dreams of an oddly familiar kind. Late-Victorian romanticism is refracted through a 1980s soft-focus haze in the spirit of a Laura Ashley catalogue from seasons past. Little’s obsessive fidelity to this peculiar aesthetic is always fruitful, producing tableaux as gently strange as they are seductive. The women’s wardrobes are sweetly kitsch assortments of the billowing floor-length dresses favoured by actresses in TV adaptations of gothic novels. Light peeks through grey English skies and rooms; figures and furniture are exquisitely accomplished in a soporific glow of coloured pencil and gouache. At first it seems Balthus is the chief ghost within these paintings. Yet, though he might have purred appreciatively over a dopey gaze or ballerina toe, other presences abound. Little confects an unashamedly gorgeous atmosphere of not-exactly erotica by alluding to a rich assortment of meek imaginary girls including pre-Raphaelite maidens, the heroine in Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1909) as well as the willowy nymphs that hover in soft focus in David Hamilton’s controversial photoshoots of teenage girls. He’s reverent towards his faintly risqué commercial sources but makes them into something unexpectedly innocent and rich in formal pleasures.
Every room is a jigsaw of textural tricks and feints. In the half-moonlight of Untitled (Ballroom) (2013) you can find a cloud streaked with silver tassels, a songbook with slate-like pages and silk plumes of flame dancing in the fireplace. The woman in a long blue dress waiting for you (whoever you are: suitor, lover, musician) might be from the cover of a Roxy Music album. Untitled (Reflections) (2013) contains an assortment of cosmetics in a bathroom cabinet that look as modest and inscrutable as Giorgio Morandi’s wine bottles, while the yellow objects by the sink – a cylinder and a sphere – might be shrunken pieces from one of Giorgio de Chirico’s enigmatic palazzi. (Little was previously a sculptor of colourful abstractions and he remains attentive to the suggestive felicities of pure shapes.)
For all these delights, many of the things that pass as tasteful painterly details can feel retrospectively unsettling. The telephone in Untitled (Office) (2013) has been carefully smudged at its edges to suggest a blurred photograph. The trees through the window are rendered with uncommon, marshmallow softness. The landscape beyond the figure in Untitled (Sleeping) (2014) appears to sprawl, but follow its topography of glassy lakes and green undulations closely and it turns out to be as neatly arranged as a maze. What’s frozen inside the various windows is as rewarding to contemplate as the interiors, supplying a potent collection of near-abstract fragments that have their own touch of half-awake strangeness.
Nothing is obvious about these paintings despite their simple contents. By carefully demurring from the short-lived thrill of voyeuristic shivers or supposedly ironic tricks, they accomplish a melancholy resonance. A ‘dream home’ is always exactly that.