“If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale,” observed Edgar Allan Poe in his “A Descent into the Maelstrom”, “you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind and spray together. They blind, deafen and strangle you, and take away all power of action and reflection.” (1) Poe’s description is an account as seen from the inside of the experience he describes. It is presented (even though within a work of fiction) as fact, as an unpleasantly intimate engagement with nature in one of its most inhospitable forms. Nadia Hebson’s paintings call up as one of many reference points the works of Poe, but one’s impression of her relation to the imagery she employs is that of someone who observes an incident, place or individual from a point at some distance from it. Whereas Poe writes as though his claim of personal experience guarantees something important about the occasion he describes, Hebson refrains from such recursive realistic constraints, instead presenting a series of images that appear to take us to locations to which it is unlikely that she herself has been.

Painting at a time when photography is legion, Hebson’s variegated artistic output seems to imply that what Andre Malraux astutely called “the museum without walls” has turned us into gratuitous observers of anything and everything on, as it were, a daily basis. (2) Her work acts to freeze the apparently relentless stream of photographic imagery so prevalent today, bringing the potential “criticality” of painting to bear upon an image-world whose very condition of repletion, of excess, promotes a deadening indifference to visual representations even as they multiply around us. In referring to painting’s critical effects I mean to suggest that a certain interesting and provocative distance is possible, through painting from, and as it were around the photograph and its various surrogates.

Hebson’s substantial canvas Bergholzli (2005), a darkly mysterious work, is a case in point. Showing a large single-masted ship caught in what must soon be its final moments as it is dragged beneath the waters of an immensely stormy ocean, we are, as viewers, positioned as witnesses to disaster, to the final end of a vessel that is clearly from an earlier historical period than our own. If this were a painting by J M W Turner or Caspar David Friedrich we would recognise that the work must have been painted from actual observation of the vessel shown or from a similar craft, aided perhaps by sketches of the sea during storms, together with verbal or written reports by people who have actually seen, or even been on board a sinking ship. But because the painting is dated 2006 and the ship is not contemporary, something more complicated than direct observation must be assumed. Bergholzli looks to be a representation of a representation, a picture of another picture already extant in a museum or catalogue or book. It is a work that seemingly takes is point of departure from the naturalised position within our own time of photographic reproduction. Even if the work presents an imagined shipwreck it would appear to be one whose depiction is filtered through the image-world of contemporary ideas about eighteenth or nineteenth century painting, readings only possible after photography’s invention and its widespread dissemination in our own time. (3)

Similarly, in her Glacier (2006), Hebson directs the viewer to an arguably outmoded manner of working, and to a place she has in all likelihood herself experienced only vicariously. We are again reminded of Friedrich, but this time of his symbol-laden winter landscapes, with their crucifix-trees and heaped-up snowdrifts, rather than those works showing sailing vessels disappearing into the distance or, more specifically, The Wreck of the “Hope” (1821). Glacier is a tiny painting, its sense of compressed intensity partly a result of the immense landscape feature it depicts being rendered within a miniaturised format. Its support of zinc, though hidden by scumbled paint, reinforces the work’s contemporaneity, whilst Hebson’s choice of the medium of oil paint suggests traditional artistic techniques. In contrast to the tedious current trend for artistic naivety, incompetence and indifference towards subject matter, Hebson’s practice is knowing, considered, literary without being illustrative or impressionistic. In Glacier the layered paint, somewhat smudged, scraped, a bit blotchy, nonetheless represents a certain laborious act of production even, paradoxically, if the medium was applied quite fast. Contrasting with the looseness of the paint is the sharpness of the drawing, a productive juxtaposition that is also apparent in Bergholzli.

Skagway (2005) may show another natural location or it may be a non-representational painting – it is positioned right on the line between figuration and abstraction. As with works such as Bergholzli, Glacier and White Tree (2004) its palette is predominantly monochromatic (all the potential colours from these works have emigrated to Milena (2006), the only portrait in the exhibition).

In White Tree the build up of oil on copper results in an exquisite sense of constrained energy, the central shaft of the tree, together with the pitched symmetry of the picture as a whole recalling both the pictorial compartmentalisation found in James Abbott McNeil Whistler and the pseudo-symbolism of Samuel Palmer or Edvard Munch. Flecks of glitter affixed to the surface sharpen the glow. These paintings raise questions about the tired ideologies of spontaneity and expression. Although Hebson’s pictures are allusive she nevertheless refrains from falling into “self-expression”. Everything she references, whether consciously or not, appears to be contained in quotation marks but the citational act is almost inconspicuous, happily lacking the pomp or pious irony so prevalent in much contemporary art. It’s as though the artist is telling us “here’s a shipwreck in the manner shipwrecks apparently demand”, or “let’s pretend that painting this way is still possible and we’ll see what the result is”. And the result is somewhere between playful questioning and genuine emotional investment, the ghosts of past pictorial conventions making themselves present in and through a practice that is “absolutely modern”, receptive enough to entertain – but also transform – selected moments from the art historical archive, reactivating these borrowed or stolen signs of painting so as to recharge and regenerate painting itself. (4)

Peter Suchin is an artist, critic and curator. He contributes to Art Monthly, Art Review, Frieze, Mute and many other journals.

(1) Edgar Allen Poe, “A Descent into the Maelstrom”, in EAP, Selected Writings, Penguin, 1980, pp. 236 - 237.
(2) “The museum without walls” is Andre Malraux’s term for the reproduction and dissemination in photographic form of works of art. See AM, The Voices of Silence, Secker & Warburg, 1954, section 1.
(3) Hebson’s Bergholzli might also be regarded as fitting into the philosophical category of the sublime, one definition of which is the representation of extremes within nature, such as powerful storms at sea. The viewer of this work can experience the pleasure of observing horror and catastrophe from a comfortable and safe position outside the painting: this too is an experience associated with the sublime.
(4) The phrase “absolutely modern” is from Arthur Rimbaud. Quoted in Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, “The Name and Nature of Modernism”, in M Bradbury and J McFarlane (Eds.), Modernism, Penguin, 1981, p. 21.