Paul Housley is an artist who has long shown little regard for pictorial hierarchy or the boundaries of prescribed genres. This is one of the qualities that render his work so appealing. Yet, assessing Housley’s latest body of paintings compels us to define his oeuvre in terms of genre. After all, is a painting of a plastic figurine a portrait or a still-life?
Regardless of how we choose to categorize his intimately scaled images we eventually pass beyond the objects depicted and begin to search for hidden motives. When speaking about his work the artist has previously said “ On one level, what you see is what you get.” Yet, while the subject of paint itself is of key importance to any artist bound to the history of the medium, in the case of Housley, it is also a support for something less immediately graspable. It is the ensuing quest for a satisfactory singular totem that leads to his cyclical and nostalgic mode of practice, and it is in this movement that the artist comes to trace an outline of himself.
When countering the Cartesian doubts of a physical world, the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued for our dependence on objects. He claimed that it is only through experiencing and coming into contact with things external to ourselves that we are able to ascertain our bodily coordinates. Housley’s paintings of impotent toy soldiers and petrified animals bear testament not only to the artist’s body in relation to these objects and his canvas, but also to his particular mode of perception. In this way the still-life functions as an indicator of its creator in a manner that is more effective than any attempt at a conventional self-portrait.
It seems that for Philip Guston also the idea of explicitly painting a face may have initially proved either too simplistic or insurmountable a task. Housley sometimes paints faces, but as seen in A Girl’s Face (2005), the artist has a tendency to crop and press the form flat to the extent that it then becomes as easily readable as either a landscape or an abstraction. The most interesting kind of painting always scrambles our categories. Perhaps Guston resorted to painting his pots and brushes for the same reasons that Housley frequently returns to his collection of miniature objects - out of avoidance. But the semiotics of significance and subjectification means that we instinctively seek out faces in the most abstract patterns, and in Housley’s Hill of Dice (2005) the mass of black eyes soon begin to return our gaze and assume a lifelike quality.
In his later still-lifes, Giorgio Morandi lent his austere assemblages of huddled crockery unmistakably human attributes. As in the case with Housley’s objects, their isolation and abandonment decree the self-imposed solitude of the artist. But by relieving his clocks of their faces and his bottles of their labels, Morandi also opened up a space for the viewer to inhabit. Housley demonstrates a similar generosity by filtering his images of their finer descriptive values. As a result we are again afforded the opportunity to roam beyond an often ambiguous picture plane with the effect that the images soon appear familiar and animated.
In their studied neutrality, Paul Housley’s paintings may initially give us little to go by. These taciturn and unassuming works demand careful consideration, and it is only after inviting us to move in closer that the artist finally makes his disclosure. At this moment we finally catch a glimpse of the artist, and on other occasions we arrive face to face with ourselves
Andreas Leventis is a writer and curator based in London
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