Georgie Hill: Ripolin

Ripolin, the iconic French brand of enamel paint, launched its 2012 range with a series of fairy-tale inspired television adverts. In these, the colour red is predictably represented by Red Riding Hood. A young, red-hooded woman in a red dress and red shoes wanders through a heavily stylised dreamscape collecting ruby red apples. The scene cuts to ‘reality’ where the same woman paints a chair inside her beautifully kept and well-appointed home. Paint, the colour red, and the act of painting have temporarily transported her elsewhere, beyond the everyday.

Another such cut could transpose this scene into one of Georgie Hill’s paintings. Similarly situated within the domestic interior, these meticulously made watercolour and graphite paintings also centre around pieces of furniture, as objects that connect the human body with the spaces it inhabits—even if the body itself very rarely appears. Hill’s long-term exploration into physical, painterly, and psychological space is also often initiated through the use of a pulpy, viscous red. Set on disrupting the pallid effects and expectations of traditional watercolour, this distinctive red serves to throw the work into other formal and thematic realms. Like the Ripolin advert, Hill taps into the symbolic associations the colour carries, especially those connected to the body, the passions, and the feminine. Where the advert plays up or into these associations, Hill’s use of red is part of a visual language that confronts these terms, and the cultural histories that construct and impose such meanings on the world.

Hill does not use Ripolin, but Le Corbusier did. He used the paint as substance and also as symbol—of a new modern world, shaped by a new architecture. His manifesto, The Law of Ripolin, ‘required every citizen to replace his hangings, his damasks, his wall-papers, his stencils, with a plain coat of white Ripolin. His home is made clean’[1]. This was an ideology that sought to cleanse more than walls. Le Corbusier spearheaded an artistic and architectural movement which denied the past, the decorative, ornament, and the realm of the imagination, all in the name of progress and order. Cultural difference was eradicated, traditional gender roles upheld. There was little space for a figure like architect and furniture designer Eileen Gray, whose resistance to Le Corbusier’s dominant theories is registered right throughout her practice. Gray is never far from the surface of Hill’s paintings, as both a source of inspiration and as a figure who until recently has largely been white-washed from cultural history. Perhaps Le Corbusier used Ripolin when he effectively vandalised Gray’s E1027 house by painting bawdy murals throughout its interior spaces. It is perhaps no wonder that Ripilon has rebranded, even if its new campaign continues to position the female experience within the white walled domestic environment—a space where women are left to decorate and fantasise.

Feint, Hill’s new body of work, takes on these various legacies of modernism. Subverting Le Corbusier’s assertion that painting and decoration must always be subject to architecture, here the deep architectural spaces of Hill’s earlier work disappear under swathes of pattern and movement that pulse across and shatter the unity of the picture plane. This patterning has always been present, but was previously contained within or pushed against a linear architectural scheme; one that almost impossibly turned watercolour painting into something resembling or giving a pulse to architectural or computer-generated CAD drawings.

The metonymic patterning that now infects the supreme whiteness of Hill’s picture plane, the paper she works on, and the modernist wall it symbolises, has its origins in forms of protective colouration deployed in nature. Hill brings these strategies for survival and attack into the domestic, artistic, and cultural realms. Here representation hovers right at its limits: spaces morph, expand, and collapse in front of one’s eyes, objects seem to emerge, dissolve, and return within the space of a few seconds. Hill’s camouflage-based patterning is a form of visual deception that turns the potentially passive act of viewing into an active process of pattern and object recognition.  The intense patterning induces the loss of control and focus that modernism actively opposed, ‘the confusion of the eye’ that Le Corbusier associated with the decorative arts, and with the experience of ‘The Orient’[2].

Hill’s new emphasis on surface trickery and deception also aligns with the strategies of Gray, whose architecture and furniture design are similarly set on disrupting the unity of modernist form from within.  Like Hill’s abstractions, Gray’s architecture refuses to reveal itself all at once, denying the modernist emphasis on clarity of form and the sense of control offered by the complete view. Gray constantly interrupts and intervenes within architectural space, setting up visual ambiguities which insist on the value of subjective rather than objective experience. Driven by similar concerns, Hill has shifted attention to how her paintings work in or on, rather than depict, architectural space. Like Gray’s architecture, this is a form of painting located within the experiences and sensations of the physical world, rather than an attempt to repel these forces.

Many of the devices used in Hill’s new paintings find some parallel in Gray’s architecture. Both work to establish multiple points of tension, breaking the coherence of the surface under a series of fractures, folds and seams. Forms constantly touch, merge or overlap, adding movement and vitality to the architectural or pictorial surface. Hill’s paintings have a collage-like effect, where individual pieces seem to have broken off and floated across the picture plane before settling in new positions next to or on top of other forms. These pieces often carry the delicate blues, pinks and feathery textures familiar from Hill’s earlier work as a sign of the outside world imposing itself within the architectural interior. Here these elements seem to be less in battle than working together to disrupt pictorial space. Gray’s distinctive use of the strip window works in similar ways. Rather than using these windows to provide a coherent and contained view of the landscape framed within the architecture, Gray sets them off centre to establish ambiguous and dynamic plays between inside and outside worlds, providing viewpoints that are constantly shifting, partial and contingent. Hill and Gray both create forms that feel that they could be folded in on each other, or, alternatively, opened out endlessly.

Gray’s presence in these paintings is most tangible in the pieces of furniture hovering within the patterned surfaces. In Back to Back, her single-armed ‘Non-Conformist Chair’ becomes one with another—a chair designed by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, an Art Deco master reviled by Le Corbusier for his adherence to traditional forms of ornamental decoration. In Semi-Supine View, Gray’s ‘Transat Chair’ encounters the ‘LC4 Chaise Lounge’ better known as ‘the machine for rest’, designed by Le Corbusier in collaboration with Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret. Set in Hill’s patterned world these objects mix and interbreed, their closely guarded borders and relative levels of utility and decoration breaking down. Hill’s paintings are constantly drawn from such an entanglement of objects, forms and styles, with Gray as the activating presence. Too modernist for art deco, too sensually decadent for modernism, Gray’s work occupies an indeterminate and often invisible space between the two—a space embodied in the perceptual uncertainties and optical dislocations of Hill’s paintings. It’s this indeterminate space that matters—it’s here that difference and resistance can be asserted.

While in many ways Hill’s paintings are set in the past, her concerns are very much of the present. Her work sits within a strand of contemporary practice which challenges or extends the precepts of modernism through reinvigorating the pattern and decoration it outlawed as decadent or irrelevant. Locally, her work connects with the drawn or taped mark-making of Ruth Thomas-Edmond—where repeated, dense patterns accumulate and move across the page or the wall—or the precise, equation-driven abstraction of Martin Thompson. All three artists work on paper and with a hand-based system of making and construction that blurs the processes of drawing or painting with that of collage or other forms that have traditionally fallen into the category of craft. These three artists are part of a wider cultural return to the decorative which accompanies current technological shifts. It is led in part by the omnipresence of flash-based technologies which have turned the computer screen into a space for the regular encounter with moving form and imagery—a contemporary presence that also seems to haunt the surfaces of Hill’s paintings.[3]

Yet, ultimately Hill remains a painter, and all of these concerns are worked out through her medium of watercolour. With its historical allegiance to nature, colour, the Sunday painter, and the deft and delicate movements of the hand, watercolour is bound up with that collection of objects, forms ,and practices that have been coded as feminine or decorative and cast within or alongside the domestic interior. Hill’s historically engaged, rigorously controlled, and labour-intensive process works both with and against the properties and associations of her medium. Where Gray sought a ‘non-heroic’ form of modernist architecture[4], Hill works to quietly ‘heroicise’ watercolour. But she does so only to question and undermine these very terms, to create layers of visual and conceptual ambiguity, celebrate Gray, and offer a thoroughly contemporary take on watercolour painting by making the medium almost disappear or become camouflaged within itself.

Published in Georgie Hill: Feint, (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2013), 11–15.

[1] Le Corbusier, A Coat of Whitewash, The Law of Ripolin, 1925, L’Esprit Nouveau Articles, Architectural Press, Oxford, 1998.

[2] Le Corbusier, ‘Journey to the East’, quoted in David Batchelor, Chromophobia, London: Reaktion Books, 2000, p.73.

[3] Alice Twemlow, ‘The decriminalization of ornament’, Eye Magazine, No.58, Vol.15, Winter 2005

[4] Caroline Constant, ‘E.1027: The Nonheroic Modernism of Eileen Gray’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol.53, no.3, 1994.