When the Knife Hits the Plate, Scream!: Nell Brookfield

26 May - 25 June 2022

In Alan Hollinghurst's celebrated novel 'The Line of Beauty', not a huge amount happens. We seemingly drift, like the protagonist, from social event to social event, with an increasing feeling of unease. The protagonist is rather obsessed with aesthetics, and ultimately the reader realises that it is that obsession which is at heart of the book. Specifically the novel is concerned with what might be termed the 'thingness' of things; that unexpected quality of the world around us that is revealed at moments of heightened emotion, when the rest of the world seems to freeze.  So for instance towards the end, the protagonist realises:

"It was inside himself, but the world around him, the parked cars, the cruising taxi, the church spire among the trees, had also been changed. They had been revealed."

Nell Brookfield makes paintings that convey the heightened specificity of a moment. Her paintings often have nocturnal settings at parties or social gatherings. In her works, the people present, who usually would be the most noisy and animated elements there, seem momentarily frozen in their poses. In their place, the incidental elements around them take over, taking a life of their own, moving slowly, changing and morphing in organic shapes. The pattern on someone's dress, the curls of hair on a pet dog, the whisps of smoke from a cigarette or candle. It is as if the human world pauses, and the world around us, take over, knowing that when we are gone, they will still be there.


In 'When the Knife Hits the Plate, Scream' (2022), the painting that also lends its title to the show as a whole, the scene is paused at the moment where a figure's long, dark red hands are cutting what looks like a birthday cake. Yet on closer inspection the main part of the cake seems to be made of something unusual, spaghetti perhaps, with strands that curl neatly in curves and S-shapes in the base layer underneath the candles. Beneath the cake, the spaghetti shapes straighten out and extend outwards towards the figure on the right of the painting and also towards the viewer's assumed space. This space for the viewer is close-up to the work, we are pulled into the scene taking place by the proximity of the scene.


Whilst the title of the show refers to an occasional tradition at birthday parties, it also points to a tension inherent in social occasions, or whenever a person is in a public arena surrounded by others. The giddy optimism of such events is undercut by anxiety, or by an awareness of the roles people feel they ought to be playing.  In 'Hairline Crack' (2022) a man leans on another man's shoulder, a pose that is normally convivial. And yet the grip seems slightly too heavy, his red (again) hand reaching over and down the other's arm in a way that seems perhaps a bit too familiar.  It is a pose that is mirrored in 'Clutch' (2021), where the figure's hold on the other seems teeters even more on the edge of desperation, her fingers elongated, curved and threatening. The significance of the red colour of these hands in these works is never spelt out and the hands are sometimes incongruously elegant. The figure's other hand ends in perfectly pointed and shaped nails, carelessly holding a drink that is caught in that moment of spilling, drips solidifying over the blue patterning of the second figure's top.


Brookfield's individual paintings speak towards a greater picture. United by their nocturnal settings, the paintings are also linked as a series as the non-human elements of them visually rhyme with each other. Smoke curls into shapes that echo the fur that seems to be on a pair of shoes in one painting, or the curls of hair from a dog in another. The world around the human subjects is filled with curves, suggestive of slow organic growth, sometimes single ones, sometimes doubled. Those latter ones can be described in art historical terms as the ogee, or 'line of beauty' theorised by Hogarth; the motif that Hollinghurst uses as the title of his novel. That gentle repeating or echoing of patterning suggests that these individual moments are part of a larger whole, of a world that is always just beyond us, only glimpsed in moments of heightened emotions where everything that usually moves, stops. In the final moments of Hollinghurst's novel, the protagonist is seized by an awareness of his own mortality, where everything will stop for him and in that moment, realises that it is that world that is always beyond the individual body that holds meaning: "It wasn't just this street corner but the fact of a street corner at all that seemed, in the light of the moment, so beautiful."