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Every artist’s work should stake out a position—that a painting is not only

a painting but also the representation of an idea about painting. That is one

reason there is so little contradiction now between abstract and representational

painting: In both cases, the painting is there not to represent the image; the

image exists in order to represent the painting.... [This makes every painting],

whether abstract or representational, into a kind of allegory of painting.


There is a popular idea that the invention of the camera in the mid-19th

century anticipated the end of painting as an art form that represented the

real world on canvas, liberating the serious painter to explore abstraction

and formal issues of space, form, gesture and colour.

Of course, it is a theory that ignores a history of non-figurative western

art that includes 1,500 years of Byzantine and Medieval manuscripts,

and also the reality that a photograph is just as removed as a painting is

from the real world in its representation of our experiences of it. Holiday

photographs may recall an important event or moment but the firsthand

experience of light, scale or space, and the substance of the occasion

remains absent.

Indeed, a photograph is, more or less, occupying much of the terrain of

painting. American art critic and art historian, Barry Schwabsky maintains

that if there is a necessary explanation as to why painting became self- conscious about the notion of a divide between the figurative and abstract

then the origins of such an idea reside in the theories of 18th century

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). He deducted

that our experience of reality is comprehended through:

Not things in themselves, but rather phenomena, appearances. The “thing in

itself” is something whose existence can only be intellectually deduced. The

perceiving mind... is something like an idea of a portrait painter. The subject

of the portrait, the sitter, is over there; the painter with his brushes, palette,

and easel is over here. There is no direct contact between the two of them.

Instead, the painter constructs a set of appearances on the canvas that somehow

corresponds to the features of the sitter.


Whether he could have imagined it or not, Kant’s theory provides

an explanation as to why, in spite of the global proliferation of digital

images in the 21st century, painting retains a status that is centred upon

its egalitarian attitude towards figuration and abstraction.

This familiarity with the visual conversations and arguments that take

place between representation and formalism is fundamental to Rachael

Dewhirst’s painting. Her work embodies a certainty in its comprehension

of painting as a specific way of making art that has its own means of


It should come as no surprise to learn that when Dewhirst held her

first solo exhibition in 2012 the scale of her painting was fundamental

to its success. She recalls: ‘From the scale, realisation and excitement in

the making of those works I knew I could have a career as an artist. I see

the potential of painting as limitless. I am never entirely sure what to

do with a new series of work because there are too many options. I am

always wanting to find a different way of working and this usually

happens when I realise I have stopped experimenting and am just

repeating what I’ve done before.’

Dewhirst discusses her work with an intuitive and comprehensive

appreciation of the unique nature of painting and the qualities of the

painted image. The subjectivity of an image and its potential narratives

in a favourite work such as la mer (2015), are fundamental to its success.

Taking its theme from the landscape she experienced visiting France in

2014 Dewhirst remains speculative as to what might be taking place

on the surface of the picture plane, celebrating its ambiguities and its

certainties: ‘There is both a flatness and depth to la mer in its treatment

of form and space, and that blue shape in the foreground could be

a whale’s tail or not. la mer is a really abstract painting—but also a

landscape of the Mediterranean. It may not be a detailed representation

of the Mediterranean but for me, it does evoke the kind of emotional

content of that environment. That’s how I experienced it. In terms of

bringing this image to resolution, those marks and shapes around the

edges, hold it all together. I use to think that resolving the work meant

that there was always so much to still do on it, but just a dot of paint

and the work can be complete.’


There is a generosity to this consideration of what a painting is capable

of doing and what it might be seeking to represent. It is an attitude that

Dewhirst shares with American fauve artist Milton Avery (1885–1965),

a painter whose work influenced and anticipated the pure formalism and

gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s.

Although travelling to France in 2014 with the initial intention of

gaining first-hand experience of the painting of Henri Matisse (1869–

1954), Dewhirst admits to her surprise in discovering that her first

encounter with the reality of his paintings was in their formalism, rather

Fearless Allegories

about Painting

Dr Warren Feeney

Promenade, 2014

1450mm x 1400mm



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croissant la plage, 2016

1205mm x 1000mm

than naturalism. The experience of the colours of his landscapes did not

seem to be the colours of his painting. In fact, of greater interest was her

discovery of the paintings of Pablo Picasso: ‘Picasso was of more interest

than Matisse. I could see that he had a real interest in applying paint

in different ways to the surface. Like Joan Miro, I like that aspect of

European Modernism, using colour and form in a way that for painting,

is always about the exploration of the process of painting. It is an

immersive experience and for me it happened when I began working

on a large scale.’4

In Tryphena (2016), the expansive scale of Dewhirst’s painting directs

its attention between figures of birds, trees, aerial maps and landforms in

painterly colours and luminous gestures and washes that give substance to

a refined and tangible reality – one that comprises the act of painting

and an idea that gives affirmation and vision to our experiences of life.

In this work and other recent paintings like croissant la plage (2016),

Dewhirst’s consideration of the relationships between colour, gesture

and figuration has acquired a newfound confidence. In croissant la plage

overlapping forms, patterns, hues and objects acknowledge their genesis

in a series of digital collaged prints that she has worked on over the past

two years, developed from cutting and pasting images and fragments

of photographs from Vogue magazine. The immediacy and detail of the

photographic content of these works retain their own aesthetic formalism,

distinct from a photograph’s responsibilities to represent a record of the real

world: ‘I started the prints when I was looking at Matisse. I was cutting

from Vogue magazine, looking for patterns and ten collage works became

digital prints. These were more directly figurative than my paintings and

in some ways, I read them as separate—the digital prints and then my

paintings, but I am reading both now as a single body of work.’5

croissant la plage and other recent works are also based on sketches and

studies on linen and accompanying photographs. Dewhirst admits that

they represent a different approach to making and resolving work. While

she retains a democratic approach to the range of marks she is capable of

making in a single painting—impasto, broad and gestural, rhythmical and

patterned, or wide sweeping washes of colour wet-on-wet on the surface

of the canvas—her painting are informed by passages that are specific in

their detail and figurative qualities, located and reconciled alongside bold

abstract forms and motifs: ‘When I initially started painting I just wanted

to learn various techniques of painting with colour, shapes and form,

making such images look complete. I really love the process of painting.

Of course, you always doubt the success of each work, but I never falter in

my confidence. When you are painting a lot happens almost by chance and

you need to walk away and then come back. Sit with it for a few weeks.

There are croissants and checker-patterns in the most recent paintings I

have done and these seem right. I will work on fifteen paintings all at once.

Four or five just isn’t enough as other ideas for other paintings come up

while you are working, so you always have to have others to work on.

For me, the best work is made when I don’t care. That is; not being too

precious about the painting. I have to be fearless.6

Dr. Warren Feeney


1. Barry Schwabsky, Painting as a New Medium,

2. Ibid

3. Rachael Dewhirst, interview, 17 May 2016

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

la mer, 2015

700mm x 630mm

la raison de la vie, 2016

1205mm x 1000mm

Tryphena, 2016

2000mm x 1400mm


Thank you to Warren Feeney and Gemma Banks for their collaboration

with this publication. Simon Ogden for his ongoing support over the

years. Lastly to my family and friends for their encouragement, inspiration

and support. Notably Mum and Dad, Hannah, Lucy, Paul, Kathryn,

Raquel and Matt.

Cover image: Cloud, 2012. 2000mm x 1500mm

Inside spread: Romantic scene with bananas, 2013. 500mm x 500mm