The compact room is bathed in a warm yellow glow. It gives off a feeling of comfort and an air of openness. A painting-centric program, The Artist Room by Taymour Grahne Projects hosts London-based American artist Grace Mattingly’s first solo show, Yellow Horses (2022). The exhibition’s title speaks for itself, conjuring an image of a herd of yellow horses galloping through a sun-washed meadow.
Three large-scale, portrait-view paintings across three walls convey the impression of a continuous landscape, one that is full of playful wit. Combined with their low placement, it keeps the artworks from towering over visitors, despite its location in West London's upper reaches. The vast outside is also contained within them, with flowers, horses, trees, and valleys peeking from each canvas. This natural setting lends itself to the presence of the almost naked figures and dainty animals that inhabit it as metaphors for the wild within each of us. The gallery's grey carpet on the floor, almost resembling a furry animal, contributes to a soft, tactile atmosphere that invites exploration inside.
As with a stage set, colour is used to animate a fictitious space that is populated by multiple hybrid beings: the mischievous and powerful serpent heel, the docile and reflective hoof girl and the strangely unsettling bipedic cat girl. Through their nearly human scale, they make it easy to visualise ourselves in each scene, stepping into the canvas and assuming every role. These femmes are nuanced depictions of beauty and desire; their bodies take the centre frame of each piece. Yet, their faces are occupied, gazing inward or away. While the world Mattingly creates exists in her imagination alone, each character contains a universal; a piece of the artist’s personality from which we can project our own.
In Yellow Landscape (Deer), pairs of woodland creatures and anthropomorphic figures sit, stand, and stare at each other, reflecting nature's dichotomy of tame and wild. One human possesses hooves like horses, empowering her to transcend bodily limitations. The other, however, wears heels, mimicking a domesticated animal. Through the incongruity of hooves and heels, the artist recalls slipping on her mother's office stilettos as a young girl, completely unaware of their feminine significance. As if by magic, childlike wonder and adulthood sensibilities are bridged by this grown-up performance of putting oneself in their mother’s shoes.
In a scene of transition, Yellow Landscape (White Dog) has a dynamic energy. Its composition depicts a dog and a woman running down a path together, as if they were switching paintings. Neither of them glances at the luscious scenery: while she peers down and strokes the canine's head, it looks upward, deeply into her eyes. Their shared stare is more than that between human and pet, taking on a tender parental bond. We, as onlookers to the intimate moment, are welcomed to come closer. The figures in this scene are reminiscent of Italian Renaissance painter Titian’s The Death of Actaeon (1559-1579). In this myth, Mattingly represents Diana, the girlish maiden goddess of hunting, out in the wild with her faithful companion chasing after the doomed Actaeon and his ravenous dogs. Their connection of trust and unity is echoed in Mattingly’s figures, as if they are two bodies led by one mind.
The titular yellow horses are seen at last in Yellow Landscape (Horses). Traditionally thought to symbolise power and strength, gentleness and peace, Mattingly’s equine avatar subverts conventional archetypes by flirting its curved bottom with irresistible ease. Coquettishly, it turns its head as if to say, ‘follow me.’The trunk of one of the surrounding trees in this scene has been slit to reveal a pathway into its interior, giving the illusion of a vaginal opening. Phallic in its upright, its appearance is now androgynous.
Mullets appear repeatedly throughout the paintings, with slight variations among each. The hairstyle has been worn by a number of pop culture icons transcending gender binaries, including musicians David Bowie and Annie Lennox. As a result of her uncertainty about depicting short or long hair, Mattingly positions her figures halfway between haircuts, calling into question the absurdity of fixed genders. Mattingly’s work is a utopian vision into the carefree world of author Adrienne Marie Brown’s book, "Pleasure Activism" (2019), whose occupants pursue ‘pleasure as a measure of freedom.’
In spite of its direct street access and visibility, its full extent is not immediately apparent. Two small-scale artworks, Cat Girl With Sunset and Snake Shoe, are tucked away at each end of the room, enticing viewers to enter and explore. In one, a cat sits soberly to the right, while a sunset in the foreground blends into the mountains as if it were a birth canal. In the second one, a flirtatious, slender snake sways gently towards its heel, with its tongue protruding as though warning us not to take it lightly. Since both were painted horizontally, drip marks remain on the outer edges of the canvas, unlike the larger pieces, which were executed vertically. Although small in scale, they introduce novel characters, processes and materials while emphasising the largeness of the main pieces and counterbalancing their prominent yellow melody. Through the combination of cadmium and lemon yellow, the artist creates paintings that appear awash in light or ‘buzzing’, as she describes them.
The various luminous shades emanating from each canvas flow into one another almost rhythmically. In fact, music holds a critical role in the artist’s process; she made these while listening to instrumental disco, funk and jazz repeatedly. In 2014, Mattingly graduated from Columbia University in New York with a BA in Philosophy, a subject that dealt mainly with the investigation of abstract ideas through language. She found that verbal expression had limitations, so to avoid vagueness, her titles are concise and clearly defined. Alternatively, painting provided a fun, creative outlet for experimentation and inquiry. Colour, according to her, speaks to the senses implicitly, without language but with all the strength of sensation. In her other paintings, trees appear alive and intertwined as though they are holding hands, which expresses the illusion that life is flowing smoothly through them.
The paintings of Mattingly share a transcendent quality with the colour field works of Abstract Expressionists. Her delicate washes envelop the viewer, exuding a spiritual aura. After mixing a colour according to her mood, she lets the composition build-up intuitively. Mixtures of mineral spirit and glossy medium are used to thin the oil paint. Paper towels are rubbed directly on the damp surface to absorb all the excess fluid. As with artist Helen Frankenthaler's 1950s soak stain technique involving washes of thinned paint on bare canvas, Mattingly’s gloss medium makes colours glide, creating a sensual surface. Her glazed works exude all the playful, wet and sticky sparkle of lip balm.
Mattingly’s approach is joyous; her colour palette unabashedly bright and her brush strokes big. As a painter, her appeal comes from her ability to tread the line of ambiguity — these figures are neither overtly sexual nor innocently naive; infused with the fantastical, wild, and domesticated. "Yellow Horses" is a tale of emotions and secrets, of safety and curiosity. A place where the wind blows warmly and getting lost isn't an issue, and where all paths lead back to the meadow awash in a blissful fiery glow.
Grace Mattingly’s "Yellow Horses" at Taymour Grahne Projects, London is open from 2 April – 30 April 2022.