It could have been Homage to Goya or Adiós, Picasso! but Emma Beer’s Torres Scholarship exhibition title instead rings out with the echo of a passer-by in Barcelona: “Rubia! Rubia!” This is how the Spanish show their appreciation of fair hair: it is also typical of the way Emma Beer gathers titles, which often seem to arrive unexpectedly like compliments from dark-eyed strangers, hinting at seduction. Read aloud the titles in this exhibition, and you may catch yourself, if not the paintings themselves, blushing: “you have your father’s eyes and your mother’s dreams,” “brown eyes like blue skies.” It is difficult to know whether the voice saying these things is wistful or flattering – are we overhearing a confession of desire, or is it a vain attempt to lure meaning from paintings that can’t really be touched by ordinary words?
Goya gets a nod in witches flight and we might be forgiven for seeking other hints of Iberia in these paintings. Since Spain, certainly, the unrelenting blacks of Beer’s earlier works (her own pinturas negras) have unfolded into other shades of old-masterish melancholy: indigo, eggplant, taupe and puce. The technically diligent use of underpainting, glazing and scumbling, too, is like an afterimage of the Prado, a murky distillation of the Spanish Baroque. But the comparison is too easy: the accomplished painterliness of Beer’s work is only coincidentally reminiscent of these things (we could just as glibly say that her blacks are inspired by a torero’s montera hat or, for that matter, that her woven patterns are really a memory of ancestral tartan).
Beer’s abstract paintings are, in the best sense of a hackneyed phrase, a painter’s paintings. They are the fruit (ripe, bruised even) of the daily practice of painting, pursued with patient determination, humility, a historical sense of painting’s possibilities and, in the end, an intuitive drive to get it “right.” The works in Rubia! Rubia! expand from paper concertinas, transforming themselves from two to three dimensions and back again in paint. Beer’s brush exercises directional restraint: no curves or wayward lines, but a more disciplined weave of horizontal, vertical and diagonal hatching. The paintings are patiently layered, with almost obsessive concern over such things as the appropriate sheen of a layer of paint and the contrasting quality of a thin chalk line. There is no straight answer to why Beer should have chosen this limited set of geometrical possibilities, of lines and stunted strokes, and why this palette, sombre and yet still whimsical, should roll through the works like a night of questionable weather. The artist is exercising an aesthetic sensibility – on a given day in the studio, this is what she had to do with her hands to satisfy the canvas.
I don’t mean to reduce Beer’s painting either to mere visual puzzle-making or to unthinking expressiveness – it is too historically aware, and too technically proficient, to say it is merely anything. I only mean to say it is in the painter that the authenticity of these patiently constructed objects meets the seeming arbitrariness of their titles. The artist is the link, who spends her life in the passionate and idealistic pursuit of the old art of painting, and whose ears just happened to filter from street-chaos the words “Rubia! Rubia!” on the day these shadows appeared on the back of her eyelids.
Joseph Falsone, September 2011