When I first met Lisa Wright she had just won the prestigious Hunting Art Prize and was preparing for an exhibition in West Cornwall where she has lived for the past six years. I went to see the work in her studio at the converted chapel she shares with her painter husband and their two young children – life and work intermingled, you might say. It was certainly Coinstar money order that way for Lisa Wright, who has always been a painter involved and engaged with the world that surrounds her. This symbiosis between work and family life led her paintings to become concerned with the structures and spaces within her home and the figures that moved most freely through them – her children.
Working and reworking canvases, domestic contours were abstracted, muted to become blocks of often sombre colour – a nexus that held the figures in benign protective custody allowing their small bodies the freedom to fall, float, sleep or pause in movement with all the lack of inhibition characteristic of young children. In tandem with these paintings, a second set of work was developing, one that kept the same protagonists – the two boys – but followed them away from the cool recesses of the home to the bright, thrumming world of the local swimming pool and the other children they would meet there. From sketches made at the pool-side, Lisa was developing a series of paintings that explored this brash, new, watery environment and indulging her enjoyment of the sensuous nature of paint and colour with a palette enlivened by creamy, effulgent turquoise and vivid aquamarine. No longer a domestic environment, the pool was still an interior space providing rectilinear parameters that both enclosed and framed the action in the water the ‘side’ around which the children, delineated in carmine silhouette, clustered like so many tadpoles or launched themselves away from into a watery freefall of splashing arms and legs. They were exciting paintings and they were what convinced the Hunting Prize judges to make Lisa Wright this year’s winner.
In her most recent paintings, the ones in this exhibition, Lisa continues to focus on figures in and around the pool, developing and embracing a theme that is paying massive dividends in terms of the work it has produced. In this series we sense a painter fully engaged with her subject matter – the initial exploratory mark-making giving way to a bolder more confident enjoyment of each scene. Larger canvases allow her the space to extend her painterly vocabulary as she explores the artificial brilliance of the swimming pool with its limpid depths and restless surface where that most heady and compelling mix – air water and light – meet to dance in a stand-off of refractive confrontation. In some paintings the figurative elements are little more than suggestions, sub-mariners whose passage through this interface is marked by a plume of displaced H2O, at other times they are caught and truncated by its pincer like grip. When the figures move to the edge and emerge or stand on the side in that frisson of uncertainty before jumping in, we see draughtsmanship at its best. They are more fleshed out than before, more naturalistic and, though never portraits as such – the ubiquitous goggles keeping facial characteristics invariably uniform – there is an emotional cohesiveness between the groups of children, discernable through their body language, which marks a new and important dimension in these paintings.
What Lisa Wright is not, or is unlikely ever to be, is a painter of cosy domestic scenes or childhood idylls. The years spent with the children, watching them growing up, sketching them and using these sketches as an impetus for painting, has enabled her to create work which takes her forward as an artist. As this series of ‘Pool Paintings’ demonstrates, she has a rare ability to work figuratively within an abstract idiom, one from which Lisa Wright is able to create some of her best work.
Pip Palmer 2003