Sophie J Williamson



Catherine Parsonage: a wrist that turns

Catalogue Essay


Throughout her practice, Parsonage has pursued the ultimate reduction of the female form; condensing the body to its most elementary essence through single deft lines, where subtle shifts in weight and angle are imbued with movement and poise. On her studio wall there is a black and white Galiano photograph torn from a magazine, an androgynous figure swathed in mesh fabric, bent over his knee in pensive thought. The carefully choreographed mise-en-scene balancing line and form, speaks as much about that which is unsaid or invisible as that which it reveals. The concentrated content enthralls, provoking the viewer to reinterpret the image time and again. There is a sensibility in this distilled image which – whilst aesthetically disparate – resonates with Parsonage’s treatment of the body in her work. Dividing the canvas, her suggestive but not conclusive, gestural lines exploit the relationship between positive and negative spaces, allowing a slippage between perspectives and views. Through erasure, withdrawal and paring back of form, she creates a space in which implication becomes the driving force. Her fragmentary figures speak to the writing of Jean-Luc Nancy, for whom bodies do not exist in space, but are space itself. In his essay, Fifty-eight Indices on the Body, he states: ‘there’s never any incorporation, but always exits, twists, openings-out, channelings or disgorging’s, crossings, balancings… there’s no totality to the body, no synthetic unity. There are pieces, zones, fragments.’[1] Parsonage’s works draw on this fallacy of the body as an absolute. As Nancy’s body exists of spasms, contractions and unfoldings, Parsonage’s figures take form in her physical relationship to the canvas. The simplicity of her marks are brought into existence in the agility and brevity of their movements, stretches, turns and their subsequent relationship to the potential whole.

Catherine Parsonage’s work shows both an immediacy of emotion as well as its subsequent repetition. In this respect, she takes inspiration from Gertrude Stein’s radical gender-exploration Melanctha, which draws attention to minutiae of feminine experience and the ‘little pieces’ of the world that evoke the female body. Similarly, Parsonage’s work describes complex and enquiring portrayals of ‘the feminine’ and its embedded contradictions. In previous works, she has dealt with the hyper-feminine. The photo-realistic paintings of vibrant cerise chrysanthemums in A little called anything shows shudders (2015) were drawn from her time spent with Mike, a dedicated chrysanthemum enthusiast, at one of the many National Chrysanthemum Society regional competitions. Months of scrupulous growing resulting in luscious spherical blooms are tweaked to painterly perfection, each of the hundreds of petals meticulously teased into place with Mike’s paintbrushes. This fanatical pastime of working class men seems incongruous with the femininity of their subject matter. Yet, there is nevertheless an underlying grotesque; the delicacy of nature forcefully cajoled into acting out an imagined, idealised perfection. This uneasy friction between seemingly feminine fluidity, masculine systematisation and the impossibility of the perfect replication reappears in a wrist that turns, where Parsonage’s characteristic soft hues and intuitive suggestive lines coincide with her use of the grid and simulative mechanical process.

One of the first paintings in this body of works, a minimal female outline against a pink block background, borrows its title from Picabia’ s Gabrielle Buffet; She Corrects Manners Laughingly (1915), a drawing of his wife as a machine. In her later grid drawings, this aggressive reduction is multiplied and repeated as she pushes the endurance of her own body and her will to imitate processes of mechanical reproduction. Whilst the individual curved lines of these drawings hold the weight of her painting, now multiplied into lattice patterns, the female form becomes strands woven into a matrix of indistinguishable DNA, camouflaged within its own proliferation. These distilled lattices culminate in the most recent work in the exhibition, right before their eyes, I became a drop of water, a spot of ink (2015). This work borrows its title from Madness of the Day, a short story by Maurice Blanchot, in which the narrator, having blood taken at hospital, feels himself dissolving into nothing. Working in sculpture for the first time, and outsourcing its fabrication, the visceral, esoteric compulsion of the narrative is translated first through her corporeal repetitive rendering of it in pencil, then mimicked by machine into steadfast aluminium facsimile, transforming Blanchot’s words through a process of flattening and compressing emotion and sensation.

In science, Alan Turing’s well know ‘imitation game’ meant to test whether a machine can think, was first formulated not to distinguish human from machine, but man from woman. Slavoj Žižek has since posed the question: ‘What if sexual difference is not simply a biological fact, but the Real of an antagonism that defines humanity, so that once sexual difference is abolished, a human being effectively becomes indistinguishable from a machine?’[2] Perhaps this is the ultimate conclusion to Parsonage’s reverberating repetitions. But yet, she works in drawing and painting, mediums which steadfastly resist reproduction. Her reduced marks on bumpy gesso boards or cartridge paper are engrained with the hand of the artist, the pace, impurities and unpolished intuitive processes of making. For Parsonage the grid therefore acts as a tool of translation and mechanomorphism: transferring and reproducing the unpredictability of the body into a structure of ordered, unchangeable logic, keeping a delineated pace and rhythm whilst simultaneously retaining individual identity of each repeated line in the imperfections of a faltering hand. Furthermore, the physical prominence of the porous sculpture implicates the viewer in the gallery, dividing space and obscuring sightlines, provoking a cyclical return to corporeal experience.

Despite the languages and pointed references that can be read in Parsonage’s work, it does not claim to deal directly with gender but instead produces a quiet, understated sensitivity. The title of the show, a wrist that turns, embodies the sensitive hesitations, pauses and musings of the contradictory material and positions that Parsonage melds together in her work. The action of turning, fixed to its axis, has no forward trajectory; moving at once both away and towards the viewer, it achieves nothing in itself but to harness speculation. The image conjured of the slender wrist — the seemingly most fragile, delicate part of the body and the inevitable hand it supports, rotating so that viewpoints come in and out of focus — is imbued with doubt, reverence and mystery. It is this fluctuation between the obscured and the clarified image that underlies Parsonage’s continued process of discovery and enquiry, where conclusions compress, expand, and bubble to the surface to once again dissolve.

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008)

[2] Slavoj Zizek, ‘Love Without Mercy’ published in the Pli Journal, Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick (2001) pg 178