Grief and Oblivion
Extract from text by Matt Price
Violence and battles are also central to the recent works of painter Sally Payen. In a major new oil painting created for the exhibition, He had to run to save himself from oblivion, yet through running he forgets himself (2010) Payen brings together a plethora of imagery taken from urban riots – some from Birmingham, some from Brighton, others from Northern Ireland. Masked rioters brandishing improvised weapons confront riot police on horseback, while shadowy figures are engaged in a number of incidents and episodes around them. Painted in a muted palette of greys with the slightest washes of yellow, blue and red, the figurative elements of the painting teeter on the edge of abstraction, merging with the architecture suggested behind – some brick-like forms, some arches receding into the right hand corner, and some railings or barriers that penetrate the action. It is a dreamlike scene, a collage of half-remembered vignettes from newspapers, TV and the Internet, capturing a sense of the breakdown of law and order that must be experienced in the midst of civil unrest. Payen’s accomplished painting brings a refined vocabulary of brush marks and textures to calculated yet naïve, stylized forms. The painting speaks of something primordial within civilisation, of primitive instincts being played out in late capitalist society and of the aggressive underbelly of (a largely patriarchal) democracy.
Whilst being a very modern painting, that it is influenced by the history of painting and of battle scenes is made clear by the accompanying oil on gesso work Battle, after Uccello (2010) – a small though highly animated painting of a partially masked figure poised to throw a short pole or stake of some kind at a mounted policeman. The reference to Paolo Uccello’s 15th-century masterpiece at the National Gallery, The Battle of San Romano (sometimes referred to as The Rout of San Romano) connects Payen’s contemporary scenes of rioting to Niccolò da Tolentino leading Florentine cavalry against the army of Siena. Another piece by Payen, also entitled Battle, after Uccello (2010) depicts just the policeman on horseback, rendered with a remarkable economy of painterly means – just a small number of carefully executed brush strokes evoking all of the drama, movement, and physicality of the horseman under attack.
It is drama, movement and physicality in the heat of a riot that are the focus of Payen’s two paintings The Fear (2010), depicting groups of young men marauding through the streets. Viewed close-up and from slightly above, as if from CCTV cameras, the aggression and tension is palpable, the men looking about them with an overriding air of menace. They could be football hooligans, they might be G8 protesters or this could be a scene from the Troubles – they could, in fact, be mobilised by any number of social or political causes to have hit the headlines in recent years. And should a riot lead to revolution, they could be laying the foundations for the vacuum of power that almost inevitably ensues in such circumstances, resulting in familiar scenes of anarchy, looting and violence until authority is restored or a new power established. A number of ink and vellum works by the artist depict scenes of rioting in sharper detail, the face of a police dog staring out at the viewer, a young man weighing up his chances against an unseen target. Payen’s works delve into the subconscious of urban violence, bringing the history of battles and their depiction into the present with both gravity and grace.