The display of Rachel Howard’s recent work at the Hastings branch of the Jerwood Gallery feels like a strangely divided affair, the paintings falling into two quite distinct groups. The more compelling set, smaller in scale, are mainly concerned with the materiality of paint. Surface qualities are to the fore, riven as they are with cracks, rivulets and delicate black hairlines. In Lean To an irregular grid is abraded, obscured or partly washed away by other layerings, while the grid in Sleepless is disrupted like rips in a net, the loosened lines clinging to one another in places like the fine strands of a broken web. These are subtle and evocative paintings, and although they sometimes invite readings as vast landscapes seen from the air, those readings are resisted by the variety of mark-making and subtle distortions of their largely monochromatic palettes. For one feature that gradually exerts pressure on you is the subtle use of bright fluorescent colours. In many works they bleed out at the edges of the canvas, as if one of the first layers to be applied in what appears to have been a lengthy painting process. But in other works, such as Fall, the fluorescence glows softly through the pale creams and greys to assert hints of a brash modernity beneath the delicately disrupted surface.
The other works are far less satisfying. These larger paintings employ a variety of decorative patternings as their dominant motif. Flowers, art deco-esque curves and other elements form the kinds of designs one might find on Edwardian wallpaper, furnishings or carpets. One tightly-packed arrangement of circular forms recalls nothing so much as Victorian floor tiles. One thinks of Sigmar Polke’s use of patterned fabrics as a painting surface – although here patterns are represented rather than used as a support – or perhaps of Ross Bleckner’s use of antique forms as a decorative element. So there’s a sense of nostalgia, and yet these patterns are combined in transparent layers that overlap and occlude one another in a way that resembles the digital layerings of Photoshop. In some areas the layering confuses each design’s decorative clarity and the sense of pictorial space, and this effect is taken to the edge of unreadability in Veil. Having established this visually complex ground, Howard then paints over it. In some canvases the overpainting is subtle; smears and drags of thin paint cover the patterns. But in the two largest works in the show, the overpainting consists of an apparently random series of wide, thick and gestural marks which leave most of the layered patterning visible. Those broad strokes suggest some frustration, as if Howard knows she has had a good initial idea but can’t see her way from there to a resolution, and the paintings feel unfinished as a result.
The two groups of work seem quite unrelated, but one painting occupies both domains. North has the subtly worked, fluid surface of many of the smaller paintings, but on this is superimposed a bright orange disc, bluntly flat amongst the subtle gradations of its monochromatic surroundings. Howard must be aware of the jarring effect of this combination in contrast with much of her work here, and yet this painting has been left to stand against a far more subtle use of the circle in an otherwise similar work; North seems to sum up the slightly conflicted aspects of this otherwise fine show.