Emerging figurative painter Elizabeth Saskia Langley brings a fresh presence to Cornwall’s art scene.
Words by Martin Holman
The title of the painting is ‘Isn’t She Lovely?’ Is it the central figure who thinks of herself as lovely? The spectator looking into the frame cannot tell because part of the woman’s face is hidden. She is certainly dressed up to the nines – or is it a masquerade? Her clothes imply another era than our own. If we are what we wear, then the shiny frock with lace cascading from the neckline and sleeves projects a certain dated glamour.
Another question: are we among theatre-folk or is a party in full swing? The woman throws an appreciative gesture towards another element the viewer has to imagine, the unseen audience. They must be standing in front of her, in the space that same viewer occupies, and enthusiastically acclaim her entrance. But what is that barrier that she seems to be standing behind? Festooned with pink swags like icing around a cake, it encircles her like a waist-high container. Indeed, could it be a gigantic, fake and hollow cake, out of which our star is exiting. We can almost hear the onlookers coo in appreciation, ‘Isn’t she lovely?’.
This absorbing image is a tour de force of storytelling that has halted well short of its outcome, left hanging in suspension between humour and pathos. That is one reason among many to applaud its creator. Elizabeth Saskia Langley is not the theatrical figure whose depiction has captured our attention. Unlike that character, whose attire, coiffured hair, richly painted lips and a cheek that maybe sports a beauty spot suggest advanced years gamefully restrained, Langley is a fresh presence on the art scene. A Londoner by origin, she graduated in fine art from Falmouth University in 2020. Soon after she received a Cultivator Graduate Studio Award with which she moved into the creative environment at CAST in Helston. Last year, her first solo show took place at Daisy Laing Gallery in Penzance, which has since shown this artist in Bristol and London.
For years, Langley’s chief source of imagery has been photographs. Originally, that material mostly came from family albums. The small painting on wood of a man looking relaxed in a domestic interior, a remote control in hand, started that way. This painting shows Langley’s skill at choosing an image, then detaching it from intimate family history to make it public, its meaning up for imaginative grabs. Yet as a kind of transformation takes place, the intimacy is preserved. In the journey from casually-made snap to oil painting, the scene has picked up significant layers from making and retelling. The image acquires new resourcefulness.
That enrichment is partly due to the associations we bring to our interpretation of the medium. Ideas about the permanence and even seriousness of oil painting come from remembering the great themes of art, and Langley understands that. Upon those perceptions she spreads rich colours from which events gain their materiality. With their almost buttery tonality, these borrowed scenes seem bathed in the mellow light of evening, at that moment when the electric lights go on. Some of her work is very small, carried out on blocks of wood a few inches in size that she collects from friends’ studios, offcuts from another process and already a little worn. Langley says: “I like how the paint applies itself viscously to the wood’s thick and smooth base, and shapes the more sculptural forms.”
Some finished paintings easily fit in a palm, like chunky cells separated from a graphic novel and set adrift from the original story. Their meanings are shrouded: ‘We Need to Talk’ spells out one; ‘Prom Night’ is the title of another; ‘Perfect Pair’ is a third. That elusiveness has a sensual quality that brushstrokes then embody, appearing broad and even luscious on the miniature surfaces. Paint drips down the panel’s side as if the picture is trailing off into another state altogether. They are not quickly made: a small painting is a week’s work; a larger painting 20 inches wide can take a year, with several others on the go simultaneously. “I like the intimacy involved in painting and viewing. It makes the objects or figures painted on these surfaces appear fragile or precious. This contrasts nicely with the more unsettling nature of the imagery.”
Langley makes work for the viewer to do, another aspect of her work’s richness. Questions flow from what we see. For instance, almost consumed by the swirling fabric pattern of the sofa in the untitled painting of the standing man is the swaddled form of an infant. Or is it a doll, perhaps one belonging to a child out of shot? Moreover, as she paints she edits. “My ‘invention’,” she says, “comes in the process of selecting and cropping images, or in the idea I instil into somewhat unassuming images.” So why has the top of the man’s head gone to leave only his smile? It used to be said, very poetically, that eyes were the windows into our souls. “The discomfort of this decapitation is intentional,” Langley admits. “Hiding a face lends an air of ambiguity to the character and that person’s motives. If the head belonged to a villain, the crop serves to make her seem more threatening.” So narrative is an important feature of the painting’s fascination for the viewer; we feel moved to fill the gaps in meaning with stories of our own. Langley offers the elements – in colour, lighting, cutting and gesture – that set the tone for ongoing speculation.
The elaborately dressed woman in the hollow cake has also lost much of her head but the image has no family connections. “Now I predominantly use found images,” the artist says. “I find them online, through blogs, articles, and image boards such as Pinterest or Instagram, or from taking screenshots from films and TV… I found this image online. The woman is not beautiful, but instead haggard and frightening. Her dress is suggestive of 18th century costume, as if from the time of Marie Antoinette, when vanity and an obsession with white lead makeup lead to death.” The fate of that French queen is well known.
“Until I went to A-level college my life was centred around the performing arts and I spent most of my childhood training and working as an actress.” Acting syphons lessons from life into the artifice of drama; theatre then distils reality through stagecraft into our imaginations. The painting ‘Carousel/Around and Round they go (2020)’ displays that awareness, underlined by witty visual wordplay. Twisted language and rounded shapes link a slide projector to a fairground ride in toy form and, layered above both, a cake. Like narrative, movement also seems suspended, until the viewer moves events along. In the shadows of the painting, we see a loop of bunting. A party? But no one appears to be present. So, the party is finally over and it is time to call it a day.
Langley enjoys double-meaning; her images eagerly supply it. Parties acquire an unfestive edge. On these occasions, a cake can represent anticipation, celebration – or insincerity that curdles into a lie. Evident in ‘Isn’t she lovely?’ is the suggestion of an uneasy atmosphere. “The woman leaping out of the ‘pop-up’ cake has her male keepers standing on either side,” she points out, as if the woman’s liberty was compromised. The pop-up cake is a longstanding trick of decadent parties, a staple of films depicting the ‘Roaring Twenties’. And in cinema it has an evil twin: “The Doom Cake,” Langley explains, “is a cinematic tradition in which a beautifully decorated cake serves as a harbinger of imminent catastrophe. A perfect example is Some Like it Hot, starring Marylin Monroe. A gangster pops out of a cake spraying bullets from a machine gun.”
When looking at Langley’s work, cinema often comes to mind. The artform uses many of the same visual techniques. “Having studied media and working in film and theatre for most of my life, I’m highly aware of visual semiotics and I have a fascination with symbolism.” So Langley manipulates some familiar triggers to build suspense, like the pig’s head depicted in profile against a plain background. One way of seeing it is as an emblem in a butcher’s shop or even an illustration from a child’s fairy story. The experience of film has taught us not to trust the innocent explanation. Langley’s rendition recalls the terrible clarity of a film close-up on a macabre detail caught in the strong tones of Technicolor. She turns the pig’s snout upward and open-mouthed, reminiscent of William Golding’s devilish pig-head in his chilling novel, Lord of the Flies, famously adapted for the screen. “I imagined ‘Squealer’ as a visual translation of an audio cue in cinema,” Langley says. “For me, it is the equivalent of the piercing strings in the film score of Hitchcock’s Psycho we all know that precede the next shot of immediate disaster.”
Childhood and play are recurrent themes. Langley remembers both as the time when art came into her life. Again, photographs fuel that memory: “One of my favourite family photos is me, aged four, standing next to my first easel. My parents gave me every opportunity possible to make art. I watched the TV programme Art Attack and had all the books. My grandma and I would often go around art galleries in London… and while my parents say they aren’t artistically inclined, I remember my mother hand painted the walls with ivy, pillars and fruits; I found that as beautiful as anything I saw in museums.”
The security of children has justifiably become a high priority for society in the digital age. But writers like Golding depicted childhood 70 years ago as a time marked by tribulation and terror. The young boys in his novel, with no adults around, struggle between civilised and barbaric behaviour. With that in mind, the battered toy depicted in ‘Bring Down the Curtain (2021)’ might have got that way after generations of devoted playful attention. Play sometimes gets tragically out of control and invites a noirish dimension. “Childhood, although filled with pleasant memories, was still a tough time for me. I was an anxious, only child, and to cope with turbulent times I became very imaginative. My toys were often my best friends and I spent a lot of time injecting life into them. I found revisiting aspects of childhood was a way of healing. I have wanted to use my work to express the identifiable struggles of growing up.”
Like a good storyteller, Langley does not divulge all her sources. Painting has always claimed the right to invent, subvert, to be more abstract than representational and to confound. With confidence, this artist pulls in allusions by the dozen from the wider world beyond art. By harnessing drawing and painting, the oldest image-maker, to probe everyone’s scrutiny of images, Langley underscores the inexhaustible potency she perceives in her medium.