British artist Emma Talbot is known primarily for her work as a painter who reformats biography and autobiography into memory and fantasy. She's an artist who pushes the medium of painting in a variety of directions -- taking on methods of storytelling that are perhaps more closely linked to the function of historical or even religious artworks, as well as print media, as orators; and treating the material onto which she paints as complicit in the execution of the work. Her current show at The Freud Museum, now entering its last week, demonstrates the variety of ways in which she has expanded the role of painting. An interesting space, not only because of the house's former owner's famous work, and the work of his daughter, Anna Freud, who is considered one of the founders of child psychology, but also because the museum functions as a space that challenges your usual act of viewing artwork.
Talbot's exhibition is selectively placed throughout the house, which has been preserved as it was -- study, bedroom, drawing room, simple, plush sofas, decorative but not ostentatious desks -- in an upper-middle class areas of suburban North London, just off Finchley Road.
When we go through exhibitions we expect white walls and a semblance of minimalism - unless it's an opening in which the only mess should be the bodies drinking in the space, not the interior itself. Brian O'Doherty famously critiqued the gallery - the White Cube - in a series of Artforum articles in 1976, mapping how the gallery space itself is riddled with hypocrisy in its attempt to posture as a neutral container for the works exhibited within it. The gallery however, as pointed out by O'Doherty, is built on a set of histories such as modernism (itself built on industrialisation and its birth from colonial power and oppression) and not only is it a blatantly non-neutral space, it is also inseparable from the artworks within it going as far as to condition the content of the works themselves. The White Cube's ability to replace the content of an artwork with the gallery/White Cube's own context is achieved through the masquerade of neutrality and apparent erasure of history, of supposed timelessness. At the Freud Museum it is the exact opposite that is being played out.
Through the collection of information on the work of the psychoanalysts and the National Trust vibe of preserving the family house as it was when lived in, we are put directly into a fixed time, and overwhelming display rather than concealment of context. When Talbot originally saw the house, details such as some of the furniture recalled her own grandparent's home and childhood memories. The work on display embraces this time-warp situation - if the house is playing dress up as what it once was, Talbot's works knowingly mess with the performance. Intangible Things, Dreamer is a stuffed fabric sculpture with plaited fake hair growing out of its highest point. Without the hair it could appear a collection of abstract forms, but the material of cloth itself - a nod to the work of hands - as well as the work's placement on Anna Freud's patient couch, immediately feels us with the sense of voyeurism onto a person, the sack of knots, of fabric and hair, is very quickly rendered flesh.
The distinct materiality as well as the use of text are key features of the work, allowing us into personal facets of the artist's psyche that are consciously laid open in an act of confession and through the formal and material ways in which the works hook into histories of labour, of gender roles, of environments. The use of silk in both the digitally printed and painted wall hangings both in the downstairs of the house and in a cabinet upstairs draw us further into a recognition of the use of the hand, this time they are the hands of many - silk itself a material so loaded with a history of industrialisation and global trade that beyond the artist's own painted lines of text and images begins to in some sense attack the bourgeois house it parades itself within, knowingly tapping into the history of much of the objects. For a house that is supposed to be about psychoanalysis, of what goes on in our heads, what is startling and important is the way in which you so see how objects and materials can talk, you are made so aware of their total non-neutrality, which too is true of all artworks, yet is still so often ignored.
Reading works placed against all the conventions that have not far shifted since O'Doherty's 1976 text further propelled me into read Talbot's works as alive. The works brought forward their meanings - their snapshot fragmented narratives of memories and fantasies - in battle with the context they were located in, rather ignoring the context altogether, or worse, being emptied out by it.
Text Rozsa Farkas