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Issue 231

Louise Giovanelli’s Sacred Moments

The artist’s first show at White Cube, London, contains new paintings full of narratively ambiguous scenes derived from popular culture

BY Ella Slater in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 23 AUG 22

Louise Giovanelli’s Altar (2022) depicts a recognizable scene from contemporary horror: Carrie White takes the stage in her high-school prom dress, a bucket of pig’s blood quivering on a beam high above her. From Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Sissy Spacek’s anguished face – here rendered in a garish neon haze and dripping with tar-like blood – has been an icon of doomed prom queens since the film’s release. I waited my turn to behold this small canvas – the only overtly recognizable identity in a painting show full of narratively ambiguous moments.

The act of worship underpins Giovanelli’s exhibition, which is threaded with characteristic references to art-historical and religious imagery. The wall text notes the artist’s preoccupation with ‘the ritual of drinking’ and ‘religious communion’. In Divinis (2022), an indistinguishable face gazes through a large wine glass. Further along the gallery walls hangs a muted pointillist work, Consumer (2022), in which slim, anonymous fingers seductively clutch a goblet. They belong to the character Patsy Stone from the television comedy series Absolutely Fabulous (1992–2012), balancing her drink and a cigarette. Giovanelli captures this transient moment from popular culture with great subtlety.

Louise Giovanelli
Louise Giovanelli, Divinis, 2022, oil on linen, 77 × 40 cm. Courtesy: © the artist, White Cube and GRIMM, Amsterdam and New York; photograph: Ollie Hammick (White Cube)

The most striking work on display is Prairie (2022), an immense triptych depicting velvety curtains in rich iridescent green. The fabric is bisected with slits of pure yellow, which both break up the composition and highlight Giovanelli’s complex, layered painting technique. Although much larger in scale than her paintings of cropped details, the stage curtains are similarly restrained and ambiguous. The show’s title, ‘As If, Almost’, which derives from the translation of the Latin word quasi, hints at an unrealized narrative beyond the immediate image. Commonly defined as ‘seemingly’ or ‘ostensibly’, quasi alludes to this concept of withholding or, as Giovanelli stated in a 2022 interview with Ocula, ‘dislocating and decontextualizing the image’.

Louise Giovanelli
Louise Giovanelli, Vanitas, 2022, oil on linen, 2.4 × 3.4 m. Courtesy: © the artist, White Cube and GRIMM, Amsterdam and New York; photograph: Ollie Hammick (White Cube)

In two works titled Surface to air (2022), the canvases are blankets of hazy light, as elongated legs protrude from the slit of a shimmering ballgown, the repetition serving to impress the image onto the viewer’s mind. Giovanelli once again conceals the scene’s exact context; we are left to guess whether the source image is from a red-carpet premiere or a movie. The artist is drawn repeatedly to moving and difficult-to-render textures: sequins, glass, velvet and silk. In Silo (2022), for example, she tackles a sole ringlet of hair, while in Vanitas (2022), a scattering of lilac light punctuates a curtain’s dazzling gold surface. I find something quietly moving about Giovanelli’s meticulous dedication to preserving impermanent moments – scenes that might otherwise disappear in the fleeting temporality of pop stars and Hollywood movies.

Louise Giovanelli
Louise Giovanelli, Consumer, 2022, oil on linen, 72 × 41 cm. Courtesy: © the artist, White Cube and GRIMM, Amsterdam and New York; photograph: Ollie Hammick (White Cube)

Giovanelli’s project isn’t to convey a moral lesson or a neat narrative; instead, she invites what the exhibition’s accompanying text calls a ‘slowed-down process of looking’ at the tension between the source material’s ephemeral origins and how paint manipulates content. Her earlier work – such as Host (2020), which distinctly recalls a segment from Fra Angelico’s The Mocking of Christ (1440–41) – strived to render close detail, but ‘As If, Almost’ is stronger in its ambiguity and more enigmatic in its subtlety. The act of looking shapes these works. It is a simple idea that Giovanelli inspires with the utmost devotion.

Louise Giovanelli’s ‘As If, Almost’ is at White Cube Bermondsey, London, until 11 September 2022.

Main image: Louise Giovanelli, Prairie, 2022, oil on linen, 3 × 5.4 m. Courtesy: © the artist, White Cube and GRIMM, Amsterdam and New York; photograph: Ollie Hammick (White Cube) 

Ella Slater is a writer based in London, UK.