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A World Of Gentle Nuances

By Christopher Andreae / April 14, 1994



THE drawings and paintings of Claire Banks do not have pretentious titles. This is in line with their atmosphere. Her subjects are straightforward enough: a quiescent figure or two, in repose rather than posed; the uncluttered space of a room; simple furniture.

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But what makes Banks's images uncommon is something less tangible than their subject matter: the way she makes her pictures. Whether she is working in pencil and soft pastel, in watercolor or in oil paint, she uses a soft modulation of tone infused, or touched, with color. It makes the viewer believe he or she is seeing through a frosted glass or a haze of particles in the air, the effect of which is to muffle or quiet any visual noise of hard line, crisp edge, or loud color.

In this reduced or concentrated presentation of her subjects, Banks has arrived at a visual language in which the surfaces, roundedness, silhouettes, and differing substances of what she depicts are the result of the subtlest, most minimal shifts from lighter to darker and from one tint to another. Hers is a world of the gentlest nuances of shadow and light.

Yet within this simplifying atmosphere is the most surprising exactness and veracity. The girl on the sofa has form and posture; the sofa's shape and feel is perfectly knowable; the space in the room, from foreground to the line where floor meets wall, is perfectly readable. Banks clearly takes as true the dictum that there are ``no lines in nature,'' and has apparently sacrificed nothing essential by doing so. There is a kind of unerring classical definiteness, a boldness, in these pictures that is almost mysterious when one considers the apparent indefiniteness of the artist's means.

All pictures that are not completely abstract operate as equivalents for the perceived world around us, or for our perception of that world. The more convincing they are in a particular artist's case, the more we are likely to find ourselves ``seeing'' our surroundings in the way that artist does. It is a kind of after-image.

Banks's pictures have this effect, and it is a measure of their conviction. We notice, after looking at her images, that it is through light and shadow rather than vigorous or sharp lines, or expressionist brushstrokes, that our perceptions most sensitively or contemplatively operate.

If Banks is adding to a tradition, her predecessors are such artists as Georges Seurat or Vilhelm Hammershoi. Her harmonies of tone also share something with James Whistler. Although her works that I have seen have not included prints, I can imagine the exhaustively shadowy texturings that can result from the process of mezzotint would be to her taste. (I am thinking in particular of those by Peter Ilsted, Hammershoi's brother-in-law).

But this young Scottish artist is making her own language, and undemonstratively shows in her work a degree of certainty, a lack of tentativeness, that is already free of precedents, however attractive or admirable.