Paintings don’t always do it for me. I suppose I am a product of my generation, acclimatised to information delivered with the immediacy of high speed broadband. Technology, it seems, has ruined me. So when I encountered the work of Flora Whiteley in her solo exhibition ‘Present Continuous’ at Vane, I had to remind myself to have patience, to give the art time. What follows is the dissolution of my scepticism; serving to smack me on the arse for my fashionable cynicism, and remind me of all the painterly predecessors that had once seduced me.

On entering the space I was greeted by an installation of earthy-hued paintings of filmic mise-en-scène and scenarios that seemed to position the figures and locations as actors within stage sets. The colour palette evoked a sense of nostalgic unease, like looking at old sepia photographs. The cast of characters that peopled the scenes were self-absorbed, distant: their faces turned as if to avoid the gaze of the viewer. It would be easy to imagine a timid or hesitant accent to the work, but they possessed a dissonant, almost defiant attitude.

There was a strong sense of being guided through the space – subtly directed by the artist’s intuitive trajectory. This was fundamental to my reading, in which the various paintings’ abstracted scenes or characters fed into one another, despite their contrasting subject matter or even the time period the subjects might be set in. Some – scenes from period dramas – and others like 1970s-90s art schools, felt commonplace and familiar. Yet the underlying narratives were disjointed, hard to reach, a mélange of concepts that Whiteley is attempting to catalogue like the arcane archives of a historian or philosopher.

In a number of works that included sections of almost flat, geometrical pattern, theatrical backdrops and curtains, Whiteley pushes notions of painting both in terms of collage and artifice. This is especially evident with Exit MC, a set of freestanding-hinged together panels, reminiscent of a divider screen from an actor’s dressing room. Far from protecting or concealing anything from prying eyes, the viewer is allowed to walk around the back of the screen revealing its base construction of linen and wood; there is a clear knowing in this piece regarding the inquisitiveness of an audience. There was a sense of being led behind the scenes in regard to the manufactured nature of all things staged: performance, costume, theatre, art. Perhaps we are being given an insight into (dare I say it) the theatre of life?

The notion of fact or fiction regarding the sources for the images had seemed at first to be a problem to me, but having spent some time questioning if these works were from memory, snapshots or film-stills, observations from life, etc, it occurred that perhaps what is more relevant is how we operate with regard to testimony – with these enigmatic pieces purposefully perplexing the audience. In this respect, the paintings act as conduits for pluralities and multiple readings, a provocation to the shallow and disposable, often found in contemporary culture.

I came to the gallery with a set of pre-conceptions about the medium of painting in contemporary art and I left feeling satisfied, and eager to watch Hitchcock’s Rebecca, having recalled Whiteley’s painting of the same name. And so, although the work looked well placed in the gallery, it didn’t remain there. It sat with me at home too, and fed into my thinking in different aspects of my own life. My own perceptions and clawing for understanding found an echo in Whiteley’s inquiry into the often contradictory and puzzling relationship between art and life.

Elizabeth Black is an artist and writer and at the time of writing is studying for her Masters in Fine Art at Northumbria University.