Visual art: Clare Woods: Victim of Geography

Until a few weeks ago, these spacious galleries at DCA held paintings from Mark Wallinger's '˜Id' series '“ twice the artist's height and as wide as his arm span, symmetrical and Rorschach-like abstracts, painted with his hands. This show brings paintings on a similar scale by English artist Clare Woods, an artist with a different kind of interest in Freud and the workings of the mind.

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Woods draws her source material from found photographs in newspapers, magazines, books, the internet, scenes where there is some kind of trauma happening: war zones, the aftermath of terrorist attacks, hospital corridors. She abstracts from them and colours, enlarges, exploring the transformation which happens by translating elements of them into paint.

Woods paints on alumnium on a flat table, using large brushes and mixing colours on the painting’s surface. Trained as a sculptor in Bath, but beginning to paint while on the MA course at Goldsmiths, she works gesturally, seeming to sculpt the paint. Each work has its own range of colours: one might be predominantly blue, another red and pink.

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The paintings are sufficiently abstract as to be removed from their original source, yet retain suggestions of human form – a face, a torso, a limb. One thinks one can make out a masked or bandaged face, a doctor’s white coat draped over a hospital chair, a seated figure watching over another lying down (asleep? dead?), a clown head with black button eyes and a red mouth.

In Dundee, Woods undertook a period of research at the RSS Discovery, the ship which carried Scott to the Antarctic in 1901.

Her painting ‘Strike’ draws on a photograph he took during a white-out, with what might be a dark figure emerging from a snowscape of golds and pinks. The atmosphere it evokes is far from simple: for all that it is dangerous, it is also beautiful.

The reference point one can’t ignore among these bright swirling colours and semi-abstracted faces is Munch’s ‘The Scream’. Yet, these works are actually very different from Munch’s archetypal manifestation of trauma. While a description of them is apt to make them sound ghoulish, the reality is somewhat different.

Woods describes her working process as painting out the anxieties which are buried inside. Once they have been expressed, they can be dealt with. The act of painting brings a measure of distance from the subject, and the artist concentrates on the next brush stroke.

They are not comfortable paintings: one writer talks about chaos lurking underneath the controlled surfaces. But if they do contain trauma and fear, it is in the same way as all of life does. We all manage everyday traumas, as Freud pointed out, in order to keep on putting one foot in front of the other.

Although the works explore difficult subjects, this show is not an unpleasant place to spend time. The open, light-filled galleries are still and contemplative. There is something about these bold gestures and bright colours which implies not only that living with anxieties is possible (and perhaps normal), at times it can even be beautiful.


Until 10 September