On Aatalya Laufer’s Heroic Doodles

by Eve Peasnall


In Pursuit of Vain Shadows[1]

Still Life Flower Painting: in subject matter at least, Atalya Laufer’s bouquets belong to the genre. Its conventions though, are not so much observed as gone through and regurgitated, almost to the point of complete estrangement. But not quite.

Seen collectively these paintings form a series, a repeated image turned by degrees, through monochrome to polychrome, muted to vivid, centered to off-centre, large-scale to small-scale. Yet they all share a paradoxical movement: both a striving, an upwards thrust and a downwards pull, a detumescence. In part this is due to the blooms careering edgewards, begetting that unsettling effect of upending a pot plant to find that its roots, desperate to get beyond the limits of their container, have curled back on themselves into a seething thicket. Here the flowers’ containers, pinioned to the shelves at the bottom of the paintings, are absurdly unfit for purpose. The bathetic vases are dwarfed by successive waves of bloated blooms, until a vertiginous gap opens up between the aspirational bouquets and their stumpy hosts.

Still Life paintings, whether displaying an abundance of objects or a few, are traditionally characterised by proximal space. They draw you in to marvel at the particularity of things, tempting you to partake in their intimacy. More often than not, this near-depth is further secured by a background wall or a penumbral flatness just beyond the display, so that everything sits within touching distance. The invitation to close looking is given by Atalya’s smaller paintings; from afar they appear to have all the sumptuousness of detail one would expect from surfaces that twinkle with a jewel-like shimmer. Yet up close, the surface layer of writhing paint forces the eye on an aimless travail, getting lost, not in revelatory detail, but in giddying, patterned rolls, till it is sent finally back outwards (inwards, in fact, in that this looking becomes self-reflexive).

In larger works, the great projecting fronds and broad-brush sweeps also preclude cosiness, whilst neither size maintains the proper time of still life, where objects are frozen stiff for a privileged kind of inspection. The riotousness, the effusive shifting, along with the layers upon layers of paint, militate against any sense of repose, of time standing still. The layers are not of the traditional silky glazes that solicit light into coloured depths, but overlaid forests of sticky arcs, leaping stems and ‘capricious undulating lines’[2] that throw-up a sense of time — a drama — unfolding.

Emanating from the past, the first layer of each painting is always a borrowed one, be it a grid or a shadow. The latter is cast by a rickety OHP, projecting lines from a drawing on acetate of Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Bouquet (1606), which Atalya traces from a small photographic reproduction. In the acetate drawing she selects only outlines of flowers, the vase and its strange shadow, leaving the insects and shells behind. Where a light of unnatural (or un-naturalistic) uniformity in the Brueghel exposes every petal, sepal and stamen to the taxonomic eye, Atalya uses flood-light, shed by the OHP’s bulb, to transform the traced lines into hazy silhouettes. Hers is a process of detaching a line that bounds and describes a specific form in Brueghel’s painting, so that it becomes its own wayward species.

Bouquet doesn’t lie ‘behind’ Atalya’s works as such (in the sense of underpinning or underdrawing), for her method is one of drawing-out, teasing the rhythmic compositional swirls, the tulip heads, the irises, into semi-abstract skeins that exist throughout, at every turn. With the exception of the vase. In almost every instance, the vase metaphorically tethers Atalya’s works to the ‘original’; it typically belongs to the first layer of paint, which against the reiterated furls above, makes of it a remnant or relic, representing a crepuscular point of origin, a dwarfish body from which the intestinal spill emanates. The vase in Brueghel’s painting is also odd, oddly split from the flowers it holds by virtue of its chiaroscuro rendering. Light falls on it differently from the bunch because it doesn’t need to be seen, it only needs to be there as a plausible, naturalistic anchor.

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Atalya’s ‘mechanical’ operations, the first tracing followed by the projection followed by further tracings, form a ritualised sequence that also involves turning the drawing on the light box, or flipping it over, returning to the canvas and tracing again. (Hence motifs are repeated within particular works as well as throughout the series.) There are links here to the old customs of the studio, where artists contrive various means of ‘distancing’ their work, using a mirror, turning the painting upside down, or walking away to look back from afar.

These are so many ways of forestalling the dangers of inwardness, absorption, the ‘pursuit of vain shadows’. Yet what is particular to Atalya’s process is the indulgence in absorption, a summoning of the doodle mentality. (The act of tracing is the apogee of the ‘mechanical’, in the sense that this word has been used historically to describe thoughtlessness, specifically a lack of the conscious thought essential to the heroic image of man the ‘nobler arts’ ought to reflect.) The Still Life genre was at the bottom of a hierarchy topped by History Painting, inadmissible to the reaches of High Art because of its intrinsic lack of ambition. The painter of still lives was likely a mistress to, in Reynolds’s phrase, a ‘mechanical trade’, incapable of thinking on the level of ‘general ideas’ which required a capacity for ‘abstraction’. Still life became a female art, in particular that of the Sunday she-painter, and despite shifts in taste, the stigma of girly amateurishness has not been altogether dispelled. For a young woman artist to approach flower painting today is still risky in its way.

But Atalya abstracts (from the Latin abstrahere, literally ‘to draw out from’) Bouquet, a painting at the very beginning, the origin of the genre’s Golden Age in the Netherlands, when it was highly prized for its particular kind of artifice, allowing the assemblage of rare non-seasonal blooms, themselves more expensive than their representations, into a single, covetable space. Collage is its proper mode, and Atalya upholds it through the crowding of dissonant, over-scented conventions, into a kitschy mix, a pot-pourri. She takes up the Modernist grid (and the utopias it symbolises) only to attenuate it in dribbles of turps-thinned paint, showing through or slipping over the winsome blooms, or ‘squares-up’ on top of a colouring-crayon drawing on canvas, a preliminary sketch masquerading as ‘allover’ painting.

Crucially, however, Atalya’s abstractions come as a result of a giving-in to Bouquet’s entreaties to an engrossed looking. She takes up its absorptive qualities as a kind of instruction, a structure that promises an excavation of the innards of Vanitas painting. For if the short-lived insects (memento mori) are edited out of the Brueghel in Atalya’s tracing, they return in her paintings by way of a dramatisation (staging of a psychic drama) that pits the heroic — up-thrusting composition, enlargements of scale, floral still life made abstract pattern-in-paint — against the ‘mechanical’ doodle, a drawing-mode that privileges not the determination of conscious thought, but the capriciousness of the unconscious.

[1] From Plotinus’s description of Narcissus’s error, quoted by Briony Fer in ‘Mondrian’s Excess’, On Abstract Art (Yale University Press, 1997). In the myth, Narcissus falls in love with his reflection, mistaking it, at first, for another beautiful young boy, ‘but presently recognized himself, and lay gazing enraptured into the pool, hour after hour’, until stricken by grief that he could not ‘possess’ his image, he commits suicide and is reincarnated as a white narcissus flower. See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths – Complete Edition (Penguin, 1997).

[2] ‘Capricious undulating line’ is Mondrian’s phrase, used to sum-up what was awry with traditional, naturalistic art, seen through the prism of his own orthogonal-bound paintings.