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Howard sees all painting as a whole, without division, as she instinctively oscillates between both categories, utilising them in equal measure to explore the full emotive potential of her medium.
Attending a Quaker school, the questions that unsettled Howard during her childhood included ‘if God made me, then who made God?’, the essence of which remains anchored in her work. Her paintings are sublime, which according to Kant’s Critique of Judgement is: ‘an object […] devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves […] a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added thought of its totality.’ As such, Howard’s work is total and limitless; it allows us to grasp a part of human existence that cannot be seen but only felt.
In 1995 the artist began utilising common household gloss paint—at times layered with oil or acrylic—leaving the medium to separate in the can so that the colour pigment sinks beneath a layer of thick, sumptuous varnish. The clear gloss and pure colour are then worked upon the canvas separately in a highly specific manner; with gravity assuming the role of the paintbrush, the varnish is applied so that it drags the pigment down the canvas, giving way to its own weight and tracing a fluid path of movement. The mark making that results from gravity’s action is then allowed to dry before the next layer is added. It is precisely this process that lends a sculptural or even architectural quality to these paintings, as they are constructed, built, developed and layered.
The early abstracts use vast expanses of colour with bands of pigment and varnish running up against each other, merging and yet retaining their precise distinction. Subsequent bodies of work include the Sin Paintings, exhibited at the Bohen Foundation (New York, 2003), where each of the seven works represents one of the deadly sins, with luminous layers of red paint oozing and streaking as if the canvas is bleeding, this liquid seemingly seeping through or receding to reveal an embedded cruciform image; the Suicide Paintings of 2007-8, which explore themes of death and release, as the dark forms of faceless hanging figures almost float within an endlessly deep space; the Repetition is Truth-Via Dolorosa series, exhibited at the Museo MADRE (Naples, 2011), which explores both the pursuit of pure truth and also the essence of human cruelty, responding to the torturous imagery from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, published by the media in 2004; and Folie à Deux (2011), which considers the sensitivity of perception and the potential for madness, as commonplace objects and human bodies seem to morph into something else when viewed through the veil of a surreal and unsettled gaze.
Her most-recent series of large and smaller scale paintings explore the idiosyncratic qualities of oil paint, unpicking the accepted rules of engagement with this most traditional of mediums. Howard explores the reverie associated with oil, and in a process of applying and then removing paint creates a palimpsest. The viewer thus experiences the final moment in the painting process, but one that also feels in flux. The trace of the artist’s hand in the paintings is subtly perceivable, and Howard describes how the surfaces, ‘have a disintegration about them; everything is falling apart, atomised’. With only hints of colour characterising the palette of the canvases – gentle iterations of yellow, red and green – the line becomes the primary active element in each composition; emerging and submerging, appearing and fading, rising and falling.
A resounding potency of colour characterises each of Rachel Howard’s works, and yet it is not precisely colour that interests her, but instead the emotional charge of how paint is applied to a canvas—the state of mind and body which might be inscribed into a work through one’s expressionist application of the paint. Scale, space and depth are also notably important to the impact of these works, conveying either a sense of the sublime and limitless, as if we were confronting something vast and expansive, or indeed a sense of enclosed isolation, expressing how small and lost we might feel wandering within a world so big.
Howard was born in County Durham in 1969 and graduated from Goldsmiths College, London, in 1991. She was awarded the Princes Trust Award in 1992 to support her art practice, was shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2004 and received the British Council Award in 2008. Recent solo exhibitions include: Rachel Howard, MACRO Testaccio, Rome, IT (2016); Rachel Howard: At Sea, Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, UK (2015); Northern Echo, Blain|Southern, London (2014); Folie à Deux, Blain|Southern, London (2011); Repetition is Truth, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina, Naples (2011);Still Life / Still Here, Rachel Howard, New Paintings, Sala Pelaires, Palma de Mallorca (2011); Human Shrapnel – oil drawings on paper, Other Criteria, London (2010); Der Wald, Haunch of Venison, Zurich (2009); Rachel Howard: invited by Philippa van Loon, Museum van Loon, Amsterdam (2008); How to Disappear Completely, Haunch of Venison, London (2008); and Rachel Howard – New Paintings, Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles (2007); Tightrope, Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art, Ohio (2002) and Painting 2001, Anne Faggionato, London (2001).
Recent group exhibitions include: Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick, Somerset House, London (2016); Summer Exhibition 2016, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2016); Settle Opere per la Misericordia, 4th edition, curated by Mario Codognato, Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples (2016); Sleepless, Beds in History and Contemporary Art, 21er Haus, Vienna, AT (2015); Untitled (Unconscious), T. J. Boulting, London (2014); Invitation to a Beheading, curated by Rachel Howard, Marianne Boesky, New York, US (2013); Drawing Biennial, Drawing Room, London (2013); Freedom Not Genius, curated by Elena Geuna, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin (2012) touring to Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, (2013); Gravity and Disgrace, curated by Rachel Howard, Blain|Southern Gallery, London (2012); Summer Exhibition 2012, Royal Academy, London (2012); Vanitas – The Transience of Earthly Pleasures, All Visual Arts, London (2010); Kupferstichkabinet – Between Thought and Action, White Cube, London (2010); Modern Times, Kettle's Yard Cambridge and De La Warr Pavilion (2010); Mythologies, Haunch of Venison, London (2009); RED Auction, Sothebys at Gagosian Gallery, New York (2008); In the darkest hour there will be light: works from Damien Hirst’s Murderme collection, Serpentine Gallery, London (2006); Jerwood Drawing Prize, London (2004), Intuition/(im)precision, (curated by Thomas Krens, Director of the Guggenheim Foundation) Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Saltzburg, Austria (2004); Shimmering Substance (curated by Barry Shwabsky and Katsou Roberts) The Cornerhouse, Manchester and Arnolfini, Bristol (2002) and The Choice, Exit Art, New York (1998).
Howard’s work can be found in a variety of public and private collections, amongst others: Ackland Art Museum, North Carolina; Museum van Loon, Amsterdam; Tate Archive, London; David Roberts Foundation, London; Goss-Michael Foundation, Dallas; Olbricht Collection, Berlin; Pio Monte Della Misericordia, Naples; The wareHouse, Wieland Collection, Atlanta and the Murderme and Hiscox collections, London.
The artist lives and works in Gloucestershire and London.
Image above (detail):
Paintings of Violence (Why I am not a mere Christian)
2011 - 2016
Oil and acrylic on canvas, wood, 7 x towels and pigment
10 canvases, each 168 x 168 cm / (10 canvases, each 66⅛ x 66⅛ in) / Box: 77.5 x 35.6 x 33 cm (30½ x 14 x 13 in) / With towels: 109.2 x 35.6 x 33 cm (43 x 14 x 13 in)