Monday, 9 July 2012


Standing in front of Dylan Lisle's new paintings at the Union Gallery, it is sometimes difficult to get past a kind of jaw-gaping admiration for his technique.
Lisle deploys the methods of past masters – for example, 'Vermeer and Van Eyck’s monochromatic underpainting and glazing, Caravaggio’s complex layering and the Venetian technique further developed by Titian' – to render his chiaoroscuro lit (mostly female) figures and draperies in exquisite detail, capturing skin tones, fur, feather and fabric textures with more than photographic accuracy.
Time seems to stand still as living, breathing subjects are stilled indefinitely before one's uninterrupted gaze. The eye and mind are uncomfortably captivated by these unexplained allusions to myth and legend, these tightly cropped, unnaturally convincing feats of re-creation.
But there is more going on than this, as I think becomes evident in one of Lisle's apparently less dramatic works:The Magician's Assistant (below). At the centre of this small, square painting is a rabbit whose glittering eye stares straight back out from the canvas at the viewer. This is not some fat, white, compliant fluff-ball, but a lean, wilder member of the species: a living, evasive, ultimately unbiddable element at the heart of an otherwise precisely choreographed conjuring trick. The rabbit is in the process of being lifted from a box, the magician's bare hands and forearms suggesting a backstage moment of intimacy. One's own eye is momentarily fascinated by this exchange of looks, by the intricate depiction of individual hairs on its face and ears. And then suddenly it strikes home: not only is there no body, but the rabbit's head has been severed, stuffed and attached to a wooden mount.
If this unfolding sequence of twists is, as I suspect, a metaphor for Lisle's whole approach to his subject matter, his sitters, and his relationship with the viewer, then one had better be on one's guard. All that technique, that cool, apparently fixed hyper-reality of his images becomes suddenly suspect and unreliable. The titles of other Lisle works shown here – My Cunning DisguiseNever Trust a Flatterer and Sionnachuighim, Irish for 'I play the fox' – begin to ring alarm bells.
Once this seed of doubt has taken root, it is difficult to view others of Lisle's paintings without detecting more and more delicious acts of subversion. I won't list them all, but: the religious solemnity of Sacramentum (top right) is slyly contradicted by a graffiti angel's wing on the wall behind the model; the notionally tragic Pietà II (right) includes a stuffed pheasant on a log rather than Christ's body brought down from the Cross; Showtime reveals little personal anatomy but a generous amount of suggestively folded red cloth.
I very much enjoy Lisle's measured, harmoniously balanced compositions blending formality and playfulness, and look forward to them growing even more interesting, darker perhaps and more complex in years to come. A final example is included below, The Judge, partly because its suggestions of ambiguous life, death and moral authority seem central to his work, and partly because I find yet another of Lisle's eyes utterly compelling.
This article was lifted from The Broughton Spurtle

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