Alison Watt - The dark fold (3 stars)

The dark fold

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Isla Leaver-Yap speaks to Alison Watt about her new exhibition at the Ingleby Gallery, where light is turned into darkness.

If the substance of all painting is light, then artist Alison Watt has got a dark sense of humour. Perhaps best known for her luminous oil paintings of shapely white calico fabrics and creamy brocade drapes, Watt has quietly spent two years creating her alter-ego installation, ‘Dark Light’.

Instantly incongruous to the Ingleby’s Georgian style, the self-contained work stands ominously in the twilit gallery with minimalist finesse - a dull, gleaming aluminium cube that intimates some industrial purpose. A discrete handle on one side reveals a double-vaulted door that leads into the darkened interior. Then, swinging both doors shut, the painted panels hung on the inside walls of the cube gradually surface out of the gloom.

For Watt the pleasure of the work is in the detail. ‘The sound the door makes when it closes behind you is like someone exhaling,’ she explains. In the dark, there really is a creeping sense of presence and claustrophobia. Perhaps such sharp aesthetic particulars run the risk of turning the work into a gimmicky spectacle. But the experience is helplessly entertaining.

Watt’s walk-in immersion painting points to a surprisingly traditionalist attitude towards the way one should see art. The length of time people generally spend on a single artwork in a museum has been calculated at roughly two seconds. With ‘Dark Light’, on the other hand, the artist has imposed a minimum viewing length of 10-15 minutes. This meditative act of looking - maybe better described as ‘waiting’ - echoes the artist’s labour intensive process. So, while most painting usually assumes an automatic ability to be seen, Watt has forcibly transformed it into a time-based medium, where the work has to arrive. And, when it does, you are engulfed.

By the time your eyes adjust to the shadows, the true cadences of Watt’s painting technique are unmistakable. ‘Your entire vision is filled with the image,’ she says. ‘You are in the painting.’ The murky viewing conditions emphasise the suppleness and rhythm of Watt’s technique, and lend an unexpected gentleness to a work that has been painted onto aluminium sheets rather than canvas. ‘Strangely, with the suite of prints which were made to compliment the piece, I experienced the opposite of this,’ says Watt, referring to the works on paper that hang in the brilliantly lit back gallery. ‘The softness of the paper seemed to be transformed into something oddly metallic by the image.’

That Watt has assuredly moved her painting towards installation is a welcome change. Her two-year residency at the National Gallery in London may result in yet more interesting excursions away from traditional canvas painting. But, while ‘Dark Light’ is an enticing, brooding work, there is a sense in which the final revelation of ‘seeing’ the work merely reveals the artist’s ‘trick’. And the exposure of such magic arguably undermines the fascination of a work that is better half-seen, half-understood.

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, until Thu 5 Apr

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