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Rachel Howard’s (b. 1969) works are like psychological snares: they capture an essence of life that seldom materialises in painting. Her large canvases are horizontal and vertical planes of architecture, their form and shape coaxed into being with the assistance of gravity. Her figurative works combine the simple elegance of drawing with the complex expressive qualities of painting. Vivid colours and heavy gloss are layered to construct luminous, shiny surfaces that look seductively wet. As if alive, her works seem better described as ‘layers of emotion’ and ‘limitless poetry’ than mere compositions of oil, acrylic, and household gloss: they are skins of paint.
Howard began using household paint in 1995 and found the medium’s fluidity so beautiful that she set herself the goal to control it. The paint is allowed to separate inside its can so that pigment and varnish can be used in isolation. The pigment is applied to the edge of the canvas, then diluted and manoeuvred through the addition of the varnish. Gravity’s pull then draws the paint down the canvas, creating abstract skeins of colour, vertical striations of gloss. In her early work this process displaced the paintbrush, the artist’s trace consciously withheld from the picture-surface. More recent works however betray a more expressive quality: figuration abounds, and microphones, animals, nudes and various modern still lifes are rendered in rapid, confident brushstrokes. Yet these works retain the same remote, mysterious distance we know from earlier works such as Via Dolorosa or the Suicide Paintings. We seem to see her paintings and drawings through a veil of water, as though suspended at the bottom of a pool. Howard has enveloped the work in a heavy cloak of varnish, obliterating the textural clues of oil or acrylic, paper or canvas, and floating the motifs at some unknowable depth beyond the picture plane.
The prosaic uses of household paint stand in stark contrast to the themes that Howard explores with it: religion, sexuality, and death. Her works picture life’s totality and the fragility of hope within it: ‘living’ is not the same as ‘bare life’ in itself. Howard mirrors this notion of life – the concept of living reduced to nothing but existence.
Howard grew up on a farm in County Durham and attended a Quaker school, the questions that unsettled her childhood and troubled her in adolescence (“If God made me, then who made God?”) remain anchored in her work. “I am petrified of death,” she explains, “I can accept that I will rot and putrefy, but it’s the idea that I will no longer love, paint or think that chills me”. Rachel Howard does not believe in God. But she believes in life – in living, and she believes in art – in painting. It is this faith that shines through her work, and imbues her art with a quality that Joachim Pissarro has declared “sublime” according to Kant’s Critique of Judgement: “The sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence, provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added thought of its totality.” Howard’s work is total and limitless in its refined glossy abstraction: it allows us to grasp a part of human existence that can not be seen but only felt.
Rachel 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 and received the British Council Award in 2008.
Her work has been exhibited in numerous group shows around the world, including: Vanitas – The Transience of Earthly Pleasures, All Visual Arts, London; Kupferstichkabinet – Between Thought and Action, White Cube, London, Modern Times, Kettle's Yard Cambridge and De La Warr Pavilion (all 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, Intuition/(im)precision, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Saltzburg, Austria 2004 (curated by Thomas Krens, Director of the Guggenheim Foundation);Shimmering Substance(curated by Barry Shwabsky and Katsou Roberts) The Cornerhouse, Manchester and Arnolfini, Bristol (2002) and The Choice, Exit Art, New York, NY (1998).
Recent solo exhibitions include: Still Life / Still Here. Rachel Howard. New Paintings, Sala Pelaires, Palma de Mallorca, Spain (2011); Human Shrapnel – oil drawings on paper, Other Criteria, London (2010); Der Wald, Haunch of Venison, Zurich; Switzerland (2009); How to Disappear Completely – New Work by Rachel Howard, Haunch of Venison, London (2008); Fiction/Fear/Fact, Bohen Foundation, New York; and Rachel Howard – New Paintings, Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles (both 2007); Tightrope,Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art, Ohio, (2002); Painting 2001, Anne Faggionato, London (2001).
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; Goss-Michael Foundation, Dallas; CCA Andratx, Spain, and the Murderme and Hiscox collections.
Rachel Howard lives and works in London.
drawing for women in love
Oil on paper
49.5 x 76.2 cm (19½ x 30 in) / Frame: 55.8 x 82.7 x 3.8 cm / (21.97 x 32.56 x 1.5 in)