Dianne Kaufman believes in paint. What it can do, physically, washed across or thickly impasted on to canvas, and what it can mean, pushing us beyond the physical into metaphysics and metaphor. Her paintings confound expectation and challenge definition; they are heads without faces, where features shift and vanish under surfaces encrusted with webbed networks of wrinkles like reefs of exotic coral or the exposed lobes of the brain. If these are portraits they are skewed ones; portraits of no-one and that is the point: being of no one person they are, at the same time, portraits of every person – of what rather than who we are – the universal rather than the particular. They are timeless; like the ancient bodies dredged from peat-bogs they emerge from their dark backgrounds squinting into the light of a world they did not see made and could never have imagined. The paint that simultaneously contains and creates these beings is itself peaty-rich; thickly layered and intricately manipulated it does not merely depict flesh but substitutes for it to give the viewer a visceral experience which is tactile and thought-provoking in equal measure.
Francis Bacon spoke of need for portrait painters to paint the inside and the outside at once and it is this balance of what is seen by the world against what is known by the creature being seen that interests Kaufman in her own practice. The inescapable self-awareness of being human, with all the grandeur, all the pathos and all the absurdity it lends to each individual existence, is essentially what her paintings simultaneously expose and celebrate; there is an operatic dimension to her works, which imply stories even while stubbornly refusing to cumber themselves with the spurious logic of narrative detail. Eyeful is not the only one of Kaufman’s creations apparently bewildered by the flux of chance and circumstance out of which he finds himself emerging; the round, moon-pale eyes seem to slide away from a direct encounter to confront the mysteries of the world in sidelong trepidation.
“The accidental marks that happen during the making seem to me to have some resonance with those elements of chance in birth and life that go to shape an individual.”
Much of Kaufman’s work is concerned with the ways in which identity is not only constructed by the individual but also imposed from outside by the expectations of society. There are, in fact, no absolute standards of beauty – something of which our increasingly multi-cultural society should in and of itself force us to become aware – but too many lives are still blighted by the failure to conform to the artificial parameters which continue to saturate the media and dominate almost every area of daily life. Yet through the ages some of the greatest portrait painters have been those who chose to paint the beauty of the unexpected; not trying to flatter their sitters by adjusting their idiosyncrasies to match the conventions of the day, but celebrating their differences in images which still evoke real lives, often hundreds of years after the originals have joined the indistinguishable dust-pile that waits for all organisms sooner or later.
The beauty of Kaufman’s images is precisely located in this shift beyond the confines of acceptable appearance. Like the self-portraits of Rembrandt in old age by which they were partly inspired, they fascinate at first by the very ambivalence their strangeness creates, and then by the growing awareness which closer inspection brings of the unconquerable being that sits behind the mask of the surface looking out. Beginning as judges, we may find ourselves being judged, and not necessarily by our own standards, a salutary as well as an unsettling experience.
Not all Kaufman’s work is done in paint, and her drawings open up very different territory. Paradoxically large where the paintings are small, they are distillations not of appearance but of action; where the paintings are tensely still, becoming from within, the dancers and performers of the drawings fling themselves through their weave of charcoal lines, reaching outwards to their becoming through the power of energetic movement equally energetically observed and rendered. These are drawings which exist with total conviction not as studies but as works in their own right; the charcoal lines as much exploratory as prescriptive, forming a satisfying counterpoint to the dynamic forces they record rather than capture.
Kaufman describes her paintings as more about the substance of the face than the likeness, but all the same each one has a clear, often haunting, individual identity that transcends conventional portraiture to touch the fundamental condition of being human; like us these are strangers in strange lands, living behind the masks we all choose to wear sooner than reveal our nakedness to the world. As spectators we look at them, and as we do so they look back: confrontational or questioning, anguished, suspicious or serene, but above all and inescapably one human being to another. These may not be not paintings about beauty, but they are beautiful paintings, full of the fascination of process and becoming, inviting us into a recognition of other dimensions to things we too easily take for granted or at someone else’s valuation. Paint is powerful stuff; in the right hands it can challenge our perceptions of even the most familiar aspects of our lives.
The first question Kaufman asks herself, entering her studio each day, is whether she is alert. Alert to catch the nuances, the traces, the things that can only be seen out of the corner of the eye and by sidelong glimpses; only recognised if, turning your head quickly enough, you know what you’ve seen as it slips away. The painter, said Graham Sutherland, must be as absorbent as blotting paper and as watchful as a cat – ready to seize the moments of seeing that never come twice. Are you alert? On the evidence of these pictures, and luckily for us, Dianne Kaufman certainly is that.