In the land of post-Internet art and zombie abstraction, figurative painting-as-painting might have a good chance of being king again. Which is why it’s hard not to like Caragh Thuring’s self-consciously decelerated paintings, mostly raw linen canvases onto which shuffle bits of figurative incident, collectively giving shape to scenes that don’t really want to be taken too literally, but are more curious about whether or not each sparse assembly of incongruous elements can hold together – like a pyramid of thoughtful acrobats, balancing quietly on a ball.
A number of these 13 recent works (all 2014) – most on the walls but four dangling suspended on wires – have as their pretext the artist’s interest in displays of ornaments found in the windows of suburban homes in Holland. Windows are a good excuse for framing devices, as in Self Fashioning, in which a rough white strip contains some equally knowing panels of white, stand-ins for venetian blinds. The outlines of the pedestals of a line of vases punctuates the sill, but the vases themselves are absent patches of raw linen, although some leafy stems rise up from where two of the vases should be. A tentative pendant lampshade occupies an unconvincing space of shadow beyond.
This well-timed hesitation pushes us back, after a while, up against the possibility of never really concluding or resolving what it is we’re looking at, back onto the activity of looking itself. Thuring is good at shifting the gears of our attention for us – trail off from some inconclusive drizzles of white paint in Bush, for example, and you find yourself looking at the suddenly fussy brushwork of the green foliage of a topiary bush. Ramping up and down from large areas of not-much to small areas of overdetailed is one of Thuring’s more winning tactics here, further mangling any hope of a settled, optimum viewing distance. Throughout, Thuring trashes any remaining illusionism by using every flattening device to hand. So in Trophy, the bare faces and limbs of sporty women are blocked out in a brick pattern, while in Golf, a group of similarly debonair golf-capped brick-figures is overlaid with a chicken-wire motif (itself block-printed), while the canvas is visibly made from separately sewn strips of fabric, seams showing. Golf is mounted like a screen, angled from the wall beside the entrance, so you have to edge around the back of it as you enter.
This attention to the physical presence of the canvas in these latter paintings is a little laboured, overcooking the idea that painting is more construction than representation. Thuring’s staging of paintings as obstructions to viewing the gallery as a whole, meanwhile, seems to betray a nervousness about their ability to hold their ground – installation games meant to entertain us in the Chisenhale’s frigid cavern of a white cube. Map and Square Mile, suspended back to back, have the names of London churches scrawled in graffitilike red spraypaint, filling the canvas. The latter also has some translucent white squares added. Neither adds up to much, making some passing gesture about place and site-specificity, perhaps, but really only serving as spatial nudges to keep us moving.
The gallery notes burble on about the ‘speed at which images are consumed’, as if images were junk food for our jaded visual taste buds. But painting isn’t automatically better just because we chew it more slowly. And although Thuring isn’t painting’s answer to the Slow Food movement, a similar question arises: whether slowness and deferment are goals in their own right, or whether they are instead displacement activities for bigger problems, left unsolved and unspoken.
This article was first published in the March 2015 issue.