Fleur Dempsey

Fleur Dempsey

exhibition dates:
29 Nov
10 Dec

Make a raw canvas, not quite the rectangle of a traditional landscape, and divide it into lines. Draw the lines in graphite, equally spaced like the lines in a notebook or a sheet of music. Fill each of the bands between the lines with carefully mixed yellows. Ochre yellow, lemon yellow, primrose yellow. Yellow like the yolk of an egg or the bright blur of the sun. Make each of these colours a different weight, opacity. Use viscous oil, watery gouache and reflective pastel. Almost a third from the top, but not quite, a band of slate grey followed by lilac. Almost a third from the bottom, but not quite, another band of slate grey. Between, paint in lilac, pale pink, bluish white, grass green. A rusty red across the middle of the canvas, that isn’t quite the middle, and doesn’t appear again. Leave some raw canvas unpainted, show some graphite. Stand back: See a dazzle of pattern, order, a giddy haze of yellow. Walk closer: See imperfections, disorder, the smudged edge of pastel not quite meeting the line.

Consulting summer’s clock’, 2023, is one of the larger paintings in the artist’s first solo show ‘How much the present moment means’. Each of the paintings in this show has a similar materiality and gesture. Striped graphite lines on a canvas, bands of delicately chosen colours. The use of oil, gouache and soft pastel. Yet, each of the paintings is resolutely itself, unique in terms of size, shape and colour. Dempsey suggests order and then undermines it. She borrows from the hard lines of twentieth century minimalism,+ then uses colour and mark-making in a visibly sensory, tactile and essentially human way.

Dempsey is interested in the idea of individual ‘slow-looking’ and to experience these paintings is primarily phenomenological. The title ‘How much the present moment means’ guides us to see the works as a painterly excavation of the present moment: an attempt to capture the multiplicity of sensations - colour, sound, touch, taste and smell - we experience when we take a moment to pause. It brings to mind the writerly endeavours of modernist novelist Virginia Woolf, also concerned with capturing the ‘myriad impressions’ of daily life, the ‘incessant shower of atoms’ that ‘fall and shape themselves into the life of a Monday or Tuesday.’ In prose, unlike painting, ‘myriad impressions’ cannot be viewed simultaneously; the writer and reader are restricted by
the literal chronology of left to right sentence-making. The immersive ‘shower of atoms’ must be separated out into a line by line. Dempsey has the privilege of presenting simultaneous impressions at the same time, but within this, she chooses to work within an ordered line by line. Has she chosen repeated lines to gesture towards the horizontal horizons familiar in landscapes? Or, does the geometric pattern of dozens of separate stripes (as many as 72 in Consulting summer’s clock) allow us to feel quite how many subtly different sensations fall upon
our bodies in one instant?

Taking their titles from Emily Dickinson poems, Dempsey’s paintings point to both. Each title places us within a season, time of day or place, suggesting those intensely personal moments when our nerves can be nicked open to the world around us. Poetry is feelings condensed in language (nowhere is this more apparent than in the photographic archive of Dickinson’s handwriting cramped into the small paper oblongs of unfolded envelopes),
and Dempsey similarly works with concentration. Her canvases are often small and square-ish (the smallest being 30.5cm x 35.5cm x 1.6cm) and, as such, invite us to experience them privately, individually; to lean in. Looking produces a dizziness, the lines start to hover into each other and extend onto the walls; the closer you get, the brighter, deeper and more encompassing the colours become. Perhaps this is the work of ‘slow-looking’. Paintings created through a slowing down of time. Paintings, subtly idiosyncratic, asking the viewer to come back and look closer. Paintings which can, in our world of quick fire visual surfeit, nudge us towards looking, both on and off the canvas, more slowly.

Dempsey describes herself as a multidisciplinary artist: downstairs the installation ‘Slower go’, 2023, moves the artist’s work off the canvas and into the architecture of the gallery. From afar, the installation appears as a series of delicate white discs, zig-zagged along the edges, suspended from barely visible threads. The white discs float, almost like butterfly wings. Their smallness and fragility invite us to approach with care. Up close, we learn these wing-like objects are in fact pencil sharpenings. Each is unique and cast in porcelain from the discarded sharpenings of Dempsey’s graphite pencils, which, we could easily imagine, were preserved while making the
paintings upstairs. A connection to this body is made in the colouring of the threads, hand-painted in shades of gouache applied across the exhibited paintings, suggesting the installation itself could be viewed as a prelude to the canvases.

Sharpening a pencil requires focus whether that be in the artist’s studio or, for those of us of a certain age, in the classroom at school. There is a tactile materiality to it: lead crumbling on fingers, the precision of turning the wood against the blade. Casting these familiar wooden scraps in porcelain, a material often associated with dainty domestic objects, Dempsey disrupts our looking. Before we can connect to them as sharpenings, she asks us to see them purely formally, as shapes which in their delicacy and strangeness must be considered carefully. ‘Slow-looking’ is at work again. Indeed, the title is lifted from the handwritten scraps of an Emily Dickinson fragment addressing the ‘sumptuous moment’ and asking it to slow down. With the urge to hold one of the white porcelain sharpenings in our palm, we are encouraged to look at the installation quietly, intimately, with perhaps the focused presence of sharpening itself. As such Dempsey invites us to be still with her, as she was, in the suspended, ‘slowed’ moment on the brink of making.

Fleur Dempsey was born in London 1994, and grew up in Dorset, UK. She graduated from Central Saint Martins with a BA in Fine Art in 2016 and is currently completing her Postgraduate Diploma at the Royal Academy Schools (2024). Recent exhibitions include: Flow: Materiality in Motion (2023) SET Kensington (London), RA Summer Exhibition (2023) Royal Academy of Arts (London), Cement Garden (2023) Asylum Studios (Suffolk), and Premiums Interim 1 (2023) Royal Academy of Arts (London).

written by Connie Treves, edited by Katrina Millar

curated by Angelica Jopling