Jemima in Her Bedroom (2007) wasn’t the same painting on second viewing. Her head had swung up, transforming the subject from downcast to upright; her arm had moved; a hat, asymmetrical and tilted, had vanished; and the bed had shifted position. To fix the image’s mutable co-ordinates I’d had to see four more of Maaike Schoorel’s radically bleached-out canvases: literally, my retinas required adapting to a world of whites, within which pallid, smudgy-looking but deceptively precise hints of figuration gather momentum over time.
Schoorel’s aesthetic feels, at first, like a formal gambit. How far can one reduce the visual chassis to nothingness, it asks, and still maintain some kind of directed conveyance? This show, the artist’s second at the gallery and entirely composed of female nudes, almost seemed designed to test this in real time, offering different points along a scale of legibility. Emma-Louise from Above (2008) dissolves in shifty vectors, a miasma of ambiguity about position: one assumes foreshortening and begins to arrange anatomic cues accordingly but remains locked out of the depicted space. Katherine (2008) is, by contrast, a model of communicative clarity and relatively unequivocal marking, conjuring in delicate wisps of brown-black, pale pink, aqua and yellows a recumbent figure, darkest around the eyes, whose stare locks calmly and guilelessly onto ours. Hoary notions of the gaze are reanimated, then complicated: we’re looking at someone whom, to some degree, we feel we have built.
But additionally Katherine is an optical-cognitive paradox, in that while we are making her appear she seems to be disappearing into memory: there is, in fact, a tipping point in that no sooner is she composed than she seems to be retreating again, not visibly but within a conceptual schema that seems to underlie these canvases. For to reduce the human figure as far as Schoorel does (the models are all friends of hers – she works from her own photographs of them) is to become entangled, willingly or not, in some kind of unwieldy poetic discourse about loss, transience, finitude etc.: a cloud of Sebaldian ennui that is frankly distracting. One has the sense that there was more there (indeed, in technical terms Schoorel must work this way), and that it has been attenuated; and it’s difficult not to see this in somewhat metaphorical terms. One tends to want to keep thinking about the paintings’ possible parameters, because otherwise, once they have performed their neat conjuring trick – first there is no mountain, then there is – one can feel dissatisfied with them and cast about for purpose.
Back to the content, then: it’s notable that Schoorel, here and elsewhere, practises a sort of wilfully anaemic update on Intimism. She blows life – or creates the conditions for life to be blown – into figures who are, essentially, caught in the midst of not doing much. Monica in Her Living Room (2008) is more active than anyone else: seen side-on, long hair cascading down, she appears to be actually walking, whereas Katherine, Jemima and Emma-Louise are lying down or sitting. The lounge she’s in is a dream space, just a set of prompts and blurry contours with which the determined eye composes. These are paintings of activity pared right back, effected in a style that is itself a reduction to near-stillness. As such, in a manner not dissimilar to the recent school of improvised music that surrounds isolated notes with oceans of silence, they’re tacitly opposed to a world of noise, excess, stimuli, figuring it in its absence. So there is a cultural politics at work here, but one whose overtly binary quality again doesn’t take it very far: not least because it’s an argument for the compensatory contemplative that’s been latently advanced within art for decades.
That aside, and even if it makes them easier to be impressed by than to like, Schoorel has a bunch of smart rapprochements at work in these paintings. They marry the you-finish-the-artwork logic of Modernism with the ostensible fixity of figurative painting; they chart a peculiar ontological space between the monochrome and the figure; they cleverly reanimate a somewhat hoary school of portraiture as a consensually acceptable parading of ghosts. But still one ends up feeling that the most interesting work is that which doesn’t resolve into some kind of implicit argumentation or strategy. For all its smoky vexations, Emma-Louise from Above ended up being the painting I kept going back to. Although I could feel it at work on me, I didn’t know quite where the image was, and Schoorel didn’t seem to want to tell me that, or, indeed, anything else. This looked from the outset like a show with a lot of room to manoeuvre in it; but, lastingly at least, here was the only place I really found it.