In the dark days of January, white cube galleries are luminous spaces. This is especially true of Pi Artworks right now: the Fitzrovia gallery is showing an incandescent array of 23 paintings by Selma Parlour. Taken in at once and at first sight, her abstract works arrest the eye with unlikely chords of colour and angular planes that suggest competing vanishing points. This is a show that releases both dopamine and mild anxiety, thanks to the pleasure of the warm hues, and the stress caused by an indeterminate focal point.
The London-based painter has laid claim to a palette of lively yet soft colours in which gray-mauve and burnt ochre both stand out, Further striking moments are provided by electric blues, a deep turquoise and a treacle-like golden yellow. Just a stone’s throw away on Oxford Street, the shop-window dressers offer less incongruous pleasures. You might conclude that Parlour’s colours are neither fashionable nor seasonal. As a serious painter, it must take effort to avoid being either.
And so Upright Animal, as the show is called, occupies a pocket outside of time and the outside of populism. Parlour uses delicate, hardly photogenic films of oil on linen. Her planes of colour are either devoid of texture or, at best, smoky around the edges. Colours come up against one another in moments of drama, and their difference is underscored by clinical borders, often made with tape, often so dark they look like an incision has been made in the linen ground.
What are these shapes? They enter the field of vision like a featureless columnade by de Chirico, or the receding walls of a garden in an otherwise blank early Renaissance landscape, designed to show off the artist’s grasp of perspective. But any sense of architectural coherence is complicated by the differing agendas of her various visual forms. The whole show is characterised by painterly humour: visual jokes, in other words, that painters may find more amusing than non-painters.
With their lack of detail and their frustrating sense of depth, it is still hard not to read these planar works as landscapes. They also bring to mind aerial photography, a god’s eye viewpoint that is now universal, thanks to Google and drone footage. These could be deserts seen from the air, compounds in which the inhabitants have gone to ground, remote hideouts haunted by death from above. The works in the show’s eponymous series (Upright Animal I and Upright Animal II) certainly imply as much. They are black and white, featureless, and somewhat ominous.
However, many other moods are generated. Invented Vocabulary compiles five works of modest size which lure the eye into a tessellated puzzle of rich colours that recall more innocent forms of travel: a vacation with beach yellow and sky blue. But with a predominance of greys and ochres, all of this really amounts to a series of chess moves in which Parlour makes works that advance the ambit of abstract painting, and which move slowly into previously unoccupied territories of colour and form.But taken together, all these works do indeed form a landscape: an inner landscape which Parlour lets you glimpse but never fully apprehend. Ten smaller works, a series called Detail Shot, are clustered together. Nowhere do her paintings suggest windows so clearly. Nowhere do they frustrate the intuition so blatantly. The forms fail to interlock and the colours don’t match. This proliferation of vistas defies the viewer to apprehend any kind of overarching logic.
Detail Shot is also notable for its use of colour. It offers some of the most pleasing juxtapositions in the show: mint with brown, mauve with tan, gold with blue, lilac with aubergine. But given Parlour’s interest in limits, the colours appear secondary to the form. They are mere entities for delimitation. This show is all about the angular borders which slice up these delectable colours. In places these ridge like lines suggest architraves: a classical quotation that resists abstraction and connects this show, once again, to the history of art.
Parlour is a cerebral painter, with a PhD from Goldsmiths. Her thesis was called Depicting Limits: Syntax, Abstraction and Space in Contemporary Painting. Her limits, borders and edges are the very focus of the works. But Parlour implies a proliferation of barriers off-camera too. None of her paintings are framed and the space which they generate, extends around the entire gallery, keeping this small, gemlike show in taut focus, giving us limits we must everywhere traverse.