Works by artist Celia Paul featured in exhibition curated by writer Hilton Als
An exhibition of work by the contemporary British artist Celia Paul (b. 1959), curated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Hilton Als, will open at the Yale Center for British Art on April 3.
The forthcoming display, specially selected by Als in collaboration with the artist and a personal testament to their transatlantic friendship, will focus on Paul’s recent paintings (made between 2015 and 2017). This selection of Paul’s work will be redolent of her favorite subjects: memory, family, and the inner lives of women. The exhibition will be on view at the center through Aug. 12.
Born to missionary parents in Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum), South India, Paul’s family returned to their native England before Paul and her four sisters were adolescents. The artist lived with her parents and siblings in Yorkshire near Haworth, a town made famous by another group of sisters, the Brontës, and which continues to inform Paul’s work.
“Visionaries such as Celia and her counterparts define a post-Young British Artist aesthetic that puts the personal to the forefront. Whether drawing from life, or the life of the imagination, she is inspired by the figurative. Sometimes the figures are family members, or bodies that the painter invents living and dancing and stretching in scenes based on moments experienced in real life. So doing, the artist showcases her interest in the complex and rich relationship between the seen and the seer,” notes Als.
Six of Paul’s most recent paintings will be on display in the second-floor galleries, including intimate works such as “My Sisters in Mourning” (2015-16), a painting she began on the 32nd anniversary of her father’s death and five months after her mother died. Completed in October 2016, this painting commemorates her mother and relates to a previous work, “Family Group” (1984-86), a memorial to her father that depicts her mother and sisters (currently on display in the exhibition “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life” at Tate Britain).
The painting “Rosebush, Magdalene Garden” (2017) depicts another family association, and it is a vehicle to connect with Paul’s brother-in-law, Rowan Williams, who is the master of Magdalene College, Cambridge University, and the former archbishop of Canterbury.
Paul says that she only started painting self-portraits successfully when she was in her fifties, reflecting her likeness in a portrait that will also be on view, painted in 2017. She notes that as a younger woman she was too self-conscious to render her image truthfully.
“Women are so often defined by their appearance, not for who they are, or by their relationship to a man. Our place in society is tenuous and shifting, difficult to pin down. Women don’t even have a foothold in the history of art, so to represent herself squarely in front of her easel is false, unless there is a lot of intentional humor,” states Paul. “I think a woman painter must be particularly conscious of the difficulty of self-representation, and she needs all her wits about her.”
As a student, Paul’s interests turned from writing poetry to portrait painting; her first subjects were elderly women in care homes and her family. She has always worked from life, and her style has always been her own, according to Als.
“Inspired by Gwen John and others, Paul’s visual vocabulary was deep and psychological, poetry that alchemized as paint. Between 1977 and 2007, Paul’s work concentrated on her mother and sisters and, eventually, loss. Since her mother’s passing, Paul has painted the sea and other bodies of water believing that if her mother is anywhere, she is there,” he comments.
This exhibition of Paul’s work will be the inaugural installment of a trilogy, curated by Als and spanning three successive years. The next two installments will focus on the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye in 2019 and Njideka Akunyili Crosby in 2020. Each artist creates a world based on the familiar and the familial, and this theme will be consistent throughout each collaboration. The genesis of this exhibition series developed following a gallery talk on Paul’s work that Als gave at the center in September of 2016, as a winner of the prestigious Windham Campbell Literature Prize, which is administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.
“Hilton, who has collaborated with Celia on other projects and has written poignantly on her work, spoke eloquently during his talk at the center, and we were so moved that we asked him to curate a small and deeply personal exhibition of her paintings,” says the center’s director, Amy Meyers. “Indeed, we asked Hilton to curate this display as part of a trio of small exhibitions exploring the work of artists with whom he has developed close working friendships over the years.”
In addition, a group of paintings by artists of significance to Paul, selected by Als, will be on display in the Center’s Long Gallery on the fourth floor, and serve as a complement to this exhibition.