Daisy Laing NEWS

'Never Quite Out Of The Woods' by Elizabeth Saskia Langley

Opened on 28th June, 'Lillibet's' debut solo show is on display until 9th July 2022

Stranger than fiction
Elizabeth Saskia Langley at Daisy Laing Gallery
Words by Martin Holman
Martin Holman is a writer based in Penzance. He is a regular contributor to Art Monthly and the Burlington Magazine, and the Cornwall lifestyle magazine, Drift.
Daisy Laing Gallery dovetails several roles into a cohesive whole. Classic modern furniture and contemporary art meet on equal terms so that creative ideas circulate in an environment still rare in international cities. In a coastal town as distinctive as Penzance, situated at some distance from the usual cultural conurbations, that combination is stimulating and inspired. The gallery is where objects by well-established designers are habitually found alongside work in many media by a roster of artists who return to exhibit new developments in their practice. Any impression that activity has settled into a familiar path, a trap for many regional art venues, is dispelled by Kate Jones’s continuing commitment to nurturing new talent.
If Daisy Laing can, in this respect, be considered a nursery space for new voices then recent Falmouth graduate Elizabeth Saskia Langley has brought more than her toys into her debut solo show. Hers is an impressive arrival, modelling the room into a direct encounter with her paintings, three of which are suspended in the space itself, giving the interloping visitor a narrow corridor in which to see them. That proximity seems deliberate; and, close up, all three are large enough to monopolise momentarily any adult’s visual field. They could almost represent the wood that Langley insists has not yet been left behind. But who is it, in the context of this confident installation, that is ‘never quite out of the woods’?
Langley has organised her show both as a display of her work and as continuous narrative experience. Except that the story and who is telling it are not quite clear, and many questions ensue. Or are they clues? Obviously, the painter has a leading role in setting the viewer’s thoughts in motion. But is she more than the arranger of a situation that already existed?
Taking a left-hand turn into the room the first work is a drawing heavy with shadow depicting toys that appear to be acting out their own story in a corner of the playroom. Looking at the list of titles, this work is called
Round the bend/Cardboard Car Crash. A dog on a four-wheeled cart emerges from the shadows. Its head thrown back and pulling on the steering, the creature seems to be caught in the act of avoiding a collision with the spiky bush-like silhouettes flanking a strip of roadway.
Is this the edge of the wood? The traffic sign the vehicle is approaching might avert a calamity. But its face is blank, lacking an instruction for drivers. Perhaps the missing word is ‘danger’. An arm stretches out from the left edge of the drawing. With an open-handed gesture, it appears to signal an alarm. When the toys take over the playroom, is anyone in control?
Below this dramatic depiction, the show moves into three dimensions. Actual toys are set out on the flat top of a plinth – pieces of wooden BRIO-like toys, the kind from which young children build sturdy and elaborate constructions. Langley has added miniature paintings to the length of simple grooved rails and humped bridges. They sit on or under the path of an oncoming train like trackside hoardings with messages for travellers:
We Need to Talk spells out of one; Prom Night is the title of another; Perfect Pair is a third.
Indeed, this show promises a type of journey. The combination of evocative objects and individual, cell-like images resemble stills from would-be storyboards or visual drafts of a tale still to be told, or retold, in full. It makes up an intriguing introduction to Langley’s intense and closely-cropped world of condensed imagery. It also announces the arrival of a daring approach that does more than entertain the onlooker’s eye. It also seems to implicate that gaze.
More toys are set out on window ledges and other household furniture. The paraphernalia of childhood and its casual clutter sets a tone. They shift the installation into the suggestion of a domestic interior. Hung on the three enclosing walls of the gallery are paintings of mostly indoor scenes: some boots parked after wearing, a sofa, a small child sleeping with a clown doll as bed mate (
Sleeping Beauty), a baby playing with a toy telephone (Ring a’ Ding), a trio of buns temptingly laden with pink icing.
The sizes of the paintings on the walls vary from moderate dimensions to absolutely tiny. The smallest are barely palm-sized; enough is picked out with fluid strokes of oil paint in these cameos to provide a nudge towards meaning rather than a detailed description. They harbour a fleetingness; perhaps, too, an urgency. The juicy vitality of her technique is way bigger than the confines of the blocks of wood, metal or paper she works on. The painting flows around and over the surface and ground colour slips over the edge now and then. The imagination rather wonders if the image might follow the paint into the margins.
This enclosure of images conceivably implies ‘home’ which is perhaps where the ‘talk’ mentioned in that one small panel needs to happen. If so, what will that talk be about? And with whom? For having followed the walls round, the eye moves on the last painting  standing beside a few coloured toy blocks with letters scattered over a lamp table. Another child appears there in another spot of green, trotting through the grass as children do and so happily that her leggings have slipped to her ankles. At which point the visitor almost overhears whispered adult enquiries skirting round the idylls of infancy.
Langley shows herself adept at making a jigsaw out of a puzzle of ideas. Because the tone in the room changes to question the wholesome innocence and harmony assumed so far, turning on the interpretation of images. Sometimes children are prompted by playing with toys to open up about a troubling event with the objective of healing an ill, action prompts dialogue that otherwise is hidden away from words the child has not yet learned to say. Adults already possess the vocabulary and imagination, and the dread.
If the jigsaw pieces fit – which is by no means certain – the oversized toy tree that Langley has placed on the floor act as a prompt to the viewer? The tree gives onto the area over which the suspended canvases hang, one in front of the other like trees in a forest, in a stuttered formation that recedes to the back wall. Together they suggest a move outdoors, perhaps into the woods the show’s title speaks of.
Each of these free-standing paintings has elements in common: a figure in a fleshy, seashell or salmon pink dress, white socks and low-cut children’s shoes with a side buckle, olive and cinnabar green backgrounds and ochrish yellows representing the ground. The girl’s face is never seen; the frame intervenes before it can appear. In one she stands (
Upstream); in the next she sits on a tee branch (Out in a Limb), the third is titled Squealer; and in the fourth, The Mudbank, she lies full length and face down, feet together.
The last of these,
The Mudbank, is hung on the wall, intersecting the flow of domestic images with a flashback, perhaps, to the outside. What is happening there? The viewer is already embroiled in a narrative inching towards a dénouement. What form it takes is left to the viewer. It could be a demonstration of innocent play: who does not welcome time spent in the park to let the imagination run free? Every child knows the tune about the ‘big surprise’ that awaits them if they go down to the woods.
Run free? Parents warn children about such places and not to go, as this girl has, unaccompanied into the trees. How many have watched the fantasy musical ‘Into the Woods’? Based on the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, forests are dangerous places yet Little Red Riding Hood’s mother sent her there to deliver food to her grandmother. The rest of the story is well documented. The Grimms were pioneers of
Langley has grasped these possibilities and thrown open an intriguing challenge to her audience. In a sense, the role of
auteur passes from artist to viewer although never conclusively. The conventional route from producer to receiver is suspended, rather like Langley’s paintings. No suspicion of manipulation exists; this artist invites the individual subconscious to animate the visual drive.
Like a good storyteller, Langley does not divulge her sources. Do they come from her own experience, for instance? Or are the compositions plucked from the free supply of which today’s technological world has a superfluity – in books, on film, reproduced in magazines, bombarding screens and scrolled through on social media free of context and meaning? By harnessing drawing and painting, the oldest image-maker, to probing everyone’s scrutiny of images, Langley underscores the potency she perceives in her medium.
Her paintings provide material the viewer is encouraged to build upon, piecing together a scenario in the much the same way as BRIO’s wooden units slot together into a track over which the toy train rolls. Now and then a bump occurs on the way, a bridge that has to be crossed, and occasionally trains of thought are derailed or rerouted. With a jolt of surprise comes the realisation that the viewer is as much the subject of these paintings as the pictures themselves.
Painting has always claimed the right to invent, subvert, to be more abstract than representational and to confound rises to the surface. With confidence Langley pulls in allusions by the dozen from the wider world outside of literature, art and the news. By asserting the continuing viability of her craft, Langley makes a debut of real promise.

© Martin Holman 2022

 Exhibition Photos by Sam Arnold @s.g_arnold