Rosemary Sloot has worked as an artist in London for many years and is known as a ‘photo realist’. It was hard to imagine what her recent exhibition at the Satellite Project Space (London, Ontario) would be like, given the somewhat enigmatic title of “The Ghost Paintings.”
I have always found Sloot’s work engaging and, as it turned out, never more so than with this series of paintings. Rather than relatively small, tightly focused and highly detailed paintings, like much of her previous work that I have seen, these are large works with blurry images at times. In her introductory artist’s statement, she writes: My works have always been highly illusionistic but with this series the images lack specificity, are out of focus and quite abstract in some cases. One result is that the viewer has to ‘work’ with the paintings, and I found myself studying each one carefully to understand the meaning behind the images.
The first few surprised me. Ghost was mystifying. It seemed to glow from within, suggesting a depth that is hard to fathom. I puzzled over what was actually represented, as it was not immediately clear. The fascinating thing is that it was hard to look away. The effect was mesmerizing.
What is represented here? Is this a flower, a shell, or could it be fabric? A shaft of light illuminates the arrangement, like a still life set against a dark background. The whole has a luscious sensibility. In her statement, Sloot notes: Some of the paintings are done on paper handmade by Dan Mezza. The thick rough surfaces add depth and richness to the image while at the same time sabotaging the illusion and fine detail, that have been typical of my work. Although Ghost was done on black Somerset, a print making paper, the use of chalk pastel changes the effect of this painting to suggest a world beyond what we actually see.
One of the most enigmatic paintings in the series is Self-Portrait with Brass Ring (2013). What we see immediately in the foreground is a hand holding something large and round, glinting with reflections — the brass ring of the title. It was interesting to note that in her artist’s statement, Sloot explains that she began this series of Ghost Paintings with several self-portraits of her holding the brass rings that her late husband, David Magee, had used in his paintings. It took me awhile to notice her face in the background, almost hidden in the shadows behind the prominent hand and ring.
This painting gave me pause – remembering the artist David Magee and thinking about what losing him has meant for Rosemary Sloot. Her own presence here is muted, as she seems ghost-like, disappearing into the background darkness. The focus is the brass ring she holds, perhaps suggesting how central her husband remains in her memory.
The image brought to mind current discussions on relationships in marriage, the roles of partners, and how too often women can feel obscured. It is a suggestive image that can be interpreted from different points of view.
Other works in this series of paintings include flowers — lilies grown by her grandfather at his home in the Netherlands, roses, and finally several representing green plants that appear to grow underwater, pictured floating and moving with the shifting tides.
Turning to the works on the facing wall of the gallery was a shift to a different world. These paintings are filled with light. Most focus on a child’s dress, a feminine, delicate dress made of a sheer transparent material. The transparency of the fabric makes obvious the void, the child who is to wear the dress, and yet at the same time the light seems to envelop a child that we cannot see. Some dresses are enclosed in window-like rectangles that hover over water, while others fill the painting frame, such as The Dress My Daughter Never Wore (2016-17). This dress appears to rest on feathers set atop a narrow dark base like a still life floating before a grey background, suggesting a cloudy sky. It fills the painting and seems embodied by a spirit, the desired child who was not to be. That it rests on feathers speaks to fragility, to lightness.
The artist noted in conversation with me that her mother had given her the dresses that she had worn as a baby, at a time when she and David were planning on starting a family. That this never came to pass haunts the dress paintings. Several include a shadow of David Magee cast on grey water, with a dress nearby. The shadow is a brilliant blue that dominates the composition, with the dress in a kind of window set above it.
In the midst of the series of disembodied dresses we find the impressive Self-Portrait with Floral Dress (2019). Here is the artist as a child in a crib, enveloped not only in a floral dress, but also in a pillowcase, sheet, mattress, and fabric hangings draped around the crib, all covered with floral embroidery. Her face stands out, with her dark eyes brilliant and intense, taking it all in. This self-portrait links with House of My Birth (2018), a complex work combining a number of themes, including flowers that seem to float around the disembodied dress, which itself forms a support for a ‘photograph’ of the house in which she grew up. I found that it brought together ideas from the series of Ghost Paintings and the dress paintings: a shadowed background, flowers, the little girl’s dress, now all linked with her first home. Clearly, these are powerful memories for the artist and brought to mind a major exhibition of the artist’s work that circulated across the country between 2012 and 2014: Immigrant. In this exhibition Sloot traced her parents’ move from the Netherlands to Canada in 1952, envisioning the good life they left behind, compared with how meager their existence was during their early years in Ontario.
The paintings in Immigrant took Sloot in a different direction from her established practice, as she referenced photographs of her parents and sisters, of landscapes in the Netherlands and in Ontario, along with the documents of their travel and arrival in this new world. As a result, her approach to representation shifted to a looser and more suggestive, somewhat abstract, style.
I drew this connection with Immigrant, first because of what seems to be a continuing stylistic experimentation by the artist, and then because what runs through many of the works in the exhibition The Ghost Paintings is a strong sense of mystery, that is gradually overlaid with a recognition of what is no more, of what has been lost over time. The constant, as in all of Sloot’s paintings, is the aesthetic quality, the beauty of fine details and overall sensibility that holds our attention. I was transfixed by many of these paintings, returning to look again, ever more carefully, and seeing this: how fleeting life can be, while art endures.
Madeline Lennon has been writing art reviews and artists’ profiles for Centred for the past three years. She is a Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University.
“The Ghost Paintings” was on exhibit at the Satellite Project Space, London Ontario, June 1-12 , 2022.