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A logic you can’t rationalise

“Images are ethereal things,” says artist Nina Royle. “They need to be anchored by materials.”

Visiting Pompeii, Nina Royle remembers marvelling at the buildings and domestic interiors buried by lava during the eruption in 79AD of Mount Vesuvius. Successive excavations from the eighteenth onwards progressively revealed their luxurious decoration, including frescoes, since restored and moved to Naples and Rome, depicting luscious gardens filled with plants and birds. Royle was struck by “something so evergreen about the ancient paintings, a liveliness that felt so ‘now’. That is what painting can do: speak through centuries and retain its vitality.”

That memory seems especially appropriate as this artist installs her one-person exhibition at Kestle Barton, the award-winning arts and holiday venue near the banks of Frenchman’s Creek. The tall, spacious gallery gives directly onto the garden and beyond to an orchard, a nuttery and a wildflower meadow. Like plants and trees, words and images have their histories of growth and adaptation. Royle is interested in origins. “I love looking up the etymology of words, to get to their roots. I like to see how their meanings, their composition even, have continued through time, handled and reshaped by use. Images have the same background; paintings are born out of other paintings… motifs have etymologies.” The opportunity to show at this bucolic location on the Lizard occurs as a new development reaches fruition in her work. She has recently been incorporating patterning into her imagery, an element with its own historical sources. “My thoughts go back to the intricate growth imagery meticulously painted into the margins of medieval manuscripts,” Royle says.

Attracted to their sustained vibrancy after centuries, largely by virtue of the materials used to make them, she also responded to their stylised design. Decoration often involves the repetition of certain features that renders it abstract and potentially quite disruptive when other parts of an image have recognisable details. Patterns alter the pace of looking and thinking: “In a figurative painting, pattern offers a place where the eye can go to rest.” Her painting ‘In the Service of Reflections’ (2023) explores this curious pictorial balance. Most of the surface consists of flowers painted into a loose composition (a motif borrowed from an exhibit seen in a museum), in which colour does not stand out but appears pale, as if faded by time and exposure. More emphatic is an area shaped like a keyhole that sits in ambiguous relationship with surrounding pattern. Perhaps it forms the lock of a door, although nothing about the surface suggests it. If it is a papered wall, for instance, why would it need an opening like this?

More radically, the keyhole can simply be a vessel to hold a separate image, framing another space where two people are visible. One is easy to recognise as a young woman dressed in similar blue attire to the second figure whose footing seems a little higher. Presumably also female, that identity cannot be confirmed because the perimeter of this painting within a painting obscures the view. Keyholes seldom reveal the full picture; it is not their function. The reason they are looked through is invariably furtive curiosity.

Already Royle has established a compelling and conceivably unsettling atmosphere around this work, in spite of the evident beauty of its appearance. The woman on the left of the cameo scene is holding an object as if for the benefit of the other. Their unequal positions imply a difference in status between them – but that is also speculation, as is the theory that a ritual is being spied upon. Looking at that object between them reveals a face. Another painting, perhaps? Checking again with the title suggests a mirror - introducing yet another type of space into the picture. But whose reflection is seen?   

Royle is confounding the viewer’s expectations with a painting that at first seems bafflingly inscrutable. After all, one expectation is that an image is a representation of the known world – of flowers, for instance, people and places – maybe not as it appears today, but to offer a rendition of events that the mind can ‘read’ into an explanation of its existence. But painting, like every art form, can have parallel existences independent from its onlooker. The artist is the route by which all manner of transformations of materials and thought take place. Another of Royle’s paintings anticipates that possibility: in ‘Spring Shoots its Lock’ (2022), a rectangle of grey is lodged in a much more colourful painting with loosely shaped, fluid strokes of variegated areas of greens, pink, yellow and plum. The grey blocks the view, rather in the manner of a palm thrust forward to halt an oncomer’s advance. Is it a mirror on a wall that has lost the ability to reflect?

Nonetheless, some coiling paintwork is still faintly visible through this unexpected obstacle; rather like a cataract in the eye, it occludes the view rather than conceals it. Yet from its bottom edge the snaking shape appears as if caught in the slipstream of the mounted archer then noticed in the righthand corner, about to release a parting shot as it races out of the picture. “Viewers can slow their looking down and go on their own thought journeys.” With that horse and rider, another train of thought emerges. The outline drawing and composition look familiar but not as contemporary as the tone and brushwork of the painting. In fact, an older source comes to mind – a small sculpture of a Scythian horse archer, possibly female, that dates from the 5th century BC and now in an overseas museum collection. Why Royle chose this figure is as open to guesswork as the relationship between the diverse elements making up ‘In the Service of Reflections’.

Aspects of past and present intertwine in other ways. Cornish by birth, Royle grew up in Newlyn and, after a Foundation year in Falmouth, studied at the Slade in London. She lives in Penwith and has a studio at CAST in Helston, so she has long been aware of the cultural heritage of the region. Strongly alert visually, she has responded to man-made images found locally as they come to resonate with her interests. Recently, the depiction in the Church of Saint Breaca at Breage, a mermaid looking into the mirror she is holding, has entered her work. In the Middle Ages, when the wall paintings were new, the image symbolised sinful vanity and temptation, especially in fisher communities familiar with deaths at sea.

Representations of women are common in Royle’s paintings. Often, they have a likeness to the artist herself, as if she wants to enter the imaginative space and be active within it. Her choice of self-portrayal is not expressly ideological although, like many women artists, she examines the roles in her work that society and art have assigned women in history. The mermaid is an example. Yet this personal identification with her compositions has a further and more abstract purpose. By engaging with the body, almost regardless of gender, she brings a source of being and feeling into her painting. Her own image is the one she knows best – although the viewer does not need to know who the figure is.

In fact, not knowing suits the obscurity that Royle prefers to ready understanding. That conviction contributed to a new direction in the lockdown period when she began making mirrors rather than merely depicting them. One example is ‘Untitled’ (bronze mirror with mermaid) (2022): its generic mirror shape was cut from a sheet of bronze, patinated in a solution with vinegar and heated with a blowtorch. That process provides colour and brings out the pattern that is hammered onto the front side to sink the design into the metal. Until glass began to be used in the first century AD, the earliest mirrors were made in a similar fashion. Indeed, Royle’s new creation has the look of an artefact from about that time, a confusion she actually does not seek, although she acknowledges that the shape still used for this item stretches a long way back in time without major change. Instead, important to her was to pursue the mermaid image and its association with human vanity, inflated pride in one’s ability or appearance. Bronze mirrors reflect poorly and tarnish quickly if not polished; to make and maintain them requires intensive labour.

In some cultures, painting the figure is discouraged as no human can imitate God’s creation. That thought emerges when looking at these objects, as does their utility that comes from being handled and cared for. Royle examines that fraught boundary between image, handling and touch, and how the presentation of art often actively denies those features. The anomaly partly accounts for the distinctive format of her smaller paintings. Rather than being flat and rectangular with canvas, hers are hard and slightly cushion-like objects with curved edges. The paint sits on a layer of gesso, a ground that is built up in thin coats on a wood panel. Like the mirrors, their making involves labour; about six layers are applied and then sanded to an ivory-like finish. The panels resemble tablets, such as documents which were once written on and handed around. The word survives to describe today ubiquitous electronic devices, portals to a multitude of actions, that are operated through touch and portability.

Thus her work accumulates multiple associations, of which none is definitive yet all are relevant. The variety of materials she uses shifts the focus from imagery and what it signifies to how the object is made – whether a painting or mirror or some other form. In that setting, the image falls into place as one among several elements to consider in a surprisingly complex encounter. “Life is that tension between whole and part. While I’m working in the studio, I’m also thinking about cooking, my teaching at Falmouth, many other things. Paintings evolve slowly and that can also be the experience for the viewer.”

Those elements are not static; like symbols, they travel between uses. For instance, the mirror shape prompted the keyhole frame in the painting with two figures. The polished bronze of the mirrors suggested to her incorporating a metallic surface in another painting, ‘Still life: Necklaces like Weather Systems’ (2023). The handle-like loop on top of the scallop interior frame incorporates a layer of gold leaf. With her interest in words, Royle composed a text about the mermaid in Breage and printed it on silk dyed to the colour of hibiscus “so the lines would be read in a more sensuous way.”

A practitioner of Shiatsu, the holistic therapy that originated in Japan concerned with releasing energy flows in the body through touch, Royle is aware of the sensual properties of colour. At one time pigments were bought in pharmacies because of their connection with medicine, knowledge that informs her approach to making. “As with the body, there is a ‘hot spot’ in painting – the right place for a particular colour or shape.”

Indeed, paint is emphasised for its materiality. In the last year, she has started to use tempera, a technique most associated with Italian Renaissance panel painting that has a marked physical dimension. Pigments are ground into powder and bound into a water-soluble emulsion with egg yolk. The combination is applied in thin layers with fine brushes, allowing precise linear detail. Painting is done slowly, requiring “more poise,” she adds, “and more stops.” Tempera also creates jewel-like colours on gesso, so that light seems to come out of them.

She has not abandoned oil paint. Throughout her career Royle has made bold, gestural work facilitated by the medium. “I like its wildness, although I struggle with it sometimes because it can be unruly and hard to control.” Tempera and oil can appear in the same painting, invoking the different moods and paces in Catching Apples (2023). “Why do I paint?” Her question is rhetorical. “Just as a way of thinking. I ask myself how can I make an image come together but also fall apart.” Royle’s work is fundamentally about existence, a complex condition in which not everything can be grasped.

The exhibition Nina Royle: And so, the magpies multiply takes place at Kestle Barton from 23rd March to 9th June 2024. All images © Nina Royle.


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