Installation views

Selma Parlour is something of a rare breed: a young artist with one foot in the academic world and the other in the studio. Her carefully-studied paintings evoke and expand upon the formal techniques pioneered most famously by postwar American artists, while her studies engage with the theory and discourse behind the canonized work from that time. Her first show at Pi Artworks in London, titled "Upright Animal," features 23 subtly-complex canvases composed of sharp, overlapping shapes and bands of matte colors. Parlour paints with thin films of oil on linen, using the technique to play with depth and texture. The result is an illusory, tromp l'oeil-like effect that works against the eye's instinctual efforts in finding points of focus. All paintings need to be seen in person to be properly appreciated, of course, but that's especially the case with Parlour's work, which purposely subverts the optics of a camera lens. What's more, in person the paintings have a glowing quality, which, in conjunction with their angularity and shifting planes, suggests a relationship to the backlit screens of smartphones and tablets.

[...] With her rigorous dedication to formalist concerns, Parlour channels the Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists of '50s and '60s. She's a big fan of that generation of artists, in particular Frank Stella, Robert Ryman, and Robert Mangold. Indeed, those painters provide helpful touchstones for her own work, which is deceptively simple and minimal, especially for the layman.

In addition to her painting practice, Parlour is also a scholar. She completed her Ph.D. in Art at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2014, and wrote a dense, 188-page thesis on the relationship between syntax and abstraction in contemporary art, citing the aforementioned painters, as well as artists like Jonathan Lasker, Donald Judd, and Wade Guyton, among many others.

[...] "Selma's brilliant in terms of talking about the relationship between painting and the academic approaches to it," says Sacha Craddock, who curated the show. "That's very unusual. I've always found that academics make really bad work because they talk too well about it. She's an exception to that rule." Craddock, who also curated last year's Turner Prize exhibition, met Parlour through the 2011 "New Contemporaries" show, an annual exhibition of the best work coming out of art schools, for which Craddock is both the chair and head of the selection process. "I remember thinking how intelligent it seemed," notes Craddock. "When I looked at her work it wasn't that I was thinking about her relationship to the history of painting—that came later. I just saw a very interesting use of the shallowness of space that lent it an associative, illusory possibility, and a sustained relationship to abstraction that wasn't absolutely about the rigors of abstraction."– Taylor DaFoe, 'Rising Star Selma Parlour Refreshes Abstract Painting With a Brainy Take on Space', Artnet News, New York, 5th February 2018



In the dark days of January, white cube galleries are luminous spaces. This is especially true of Pi Artworks right now: the Fitzrovia gallery is showing an incandescent array of 23 paintings by Selma Parlour. Taken in at once and at first sight, her abstract works arrest the eye with unlikely chords of colour and angular planes that suggest competing vanishing points. This is a show that releases both dopamine and mild anxiety, thanks to the pleasure of the warm hues, and the stress caused by an indeterminate focal point.

The London-based painter has laid claim to a palette of lively yet soft colours in which gray-mauve and burnt ochre both stand out. Further striking moments are provided by electric blues, a deep turquoise and a treacle-like golden yellow. Just a stone's throw away on Oxford Street, the shop-window dressers offer less incongruous pleasures. You might conclude that Parlour's colours are neither fashionable nor seasonal. As a serious painter, it must take effort to avoid being either.


Detail Shots (2017) oil on linen, 30cm x 23cm - Installation view, Pi Artworks 2018


And so Upright Animal, as the show is called, occupies a pocket outside of time and the outside of populism. Parlour uses delicate, hardly photogenic films of oil on linen. Her planes of colour are either devoid of texture or, at best, smoky around the edges. Colours come up against one another in moments of drama, and their difference is underscored by clinical borders, often made with tape, often so dark they look like an incision has been made in the linen ground.

What are these shapes? They enter the field of vision like a featureless columnade by de Chirico, or the receding walls of a garden in an otherwise blank early Renaissance landscape, designed to show off the artist's grasp of perspective. But any sense of architectural coherence is complicated by the differing agendas of her various visual forms. The whole show is characterised by painterly humour: visual jokes, in other words, that painters may find more amusing than non-painters.

With their lack of detail and their frustrating sense of depth, it is still hard not to read these planar works as landscapes. They also bring to mind aerial photography, a god's eye viewpoint that is now universal, thanks to Google and drone footage. These could be deserts seen from the air, compounds in which the inhabitants have gone to ground, remote hideouts haunted by death from above. The works in the show's eponymous series (Upright Animal I and Upright Animal II) certainly imply as much. They are black and white, featureless, and somewhat ominous.

However, many other moods are generated. Invented Vocabulary compiles five works of modest size which lure the eye into a tessellated puzzle of rich colours that recall more innocent forms of travel: a vacation with beach yellow and sky blue. But with a predominance of greys and ochres, all of this really amounts to a series of chess moves in which Parlour makes works that advance the ambit of abstract painting, and which move slowly into previously unoccupied territories of colour and form.

But taken together, all these works do indeed form a landscape: an inner landscape which Parlour lets you glimpse but never fully apprehend. Ten smaller works, a series called Detail Shot, are clustered together. Nowhere do her paintings suggest windows so clearly. Nowhere do they frustrate the intuition so blatantly. The forms fail to interlock and the colours don't match. This proliferation of vistas defies the viewer to apprehend any kind of overarching logic.

Detail Shot is also notable for its use of colour. It offers some of the most pleasing juxtapositions in the show: mint with brown, mauve with tan, gold with blue, lilac with aubergine. But given Parlour's interest in limits, the colours appear secondary to the form. They are mere entities for delimitation. This show is all about the angular borders which slice up these delectable colours. In places these ridge like lines suggest architraves: a classical quotation that resists abstraction and connects this show, once again, to the history of art.

Parlour is a cerebral painter, with a PhD from Goldsmiths. Her thesis was called Depicting Limits: Syntax, Abstraction and Space in Contemporary Painting. Her limits, borders and edges are the very focus of the works. But Parlour implies a proliferation of barriers off-camera too. None of her paintings are framed and the space which they generate, extends around the entire gallery, keeping this small, gemlike show in taut focus, giving us limits we must everywhere traverse. – Mark Sheerin, 'Selma Parlour: Upright Animal, Pi Artworks review - incandescent colurs', The Arts Desk, 18th January 2018



Selma Parlour has been exhibiting her rigorous yet alluring geometric abstractions for several years, and one was short-listed for the John Moores prize in 2016. This, the first solo show by a London artist in the four-year history of the prominent London and Istanbul-based gallery's Eastcastle Street space, is her biggest and most varied yet, with 23 paintings, all from 2017, ranging from 23 x 30cm to 222 x 160cm in size. All, however, retain Parlour's trademark vocabulary of geometric frames rendered through, in her words, "soft films of oil on linen" in which "the literal transparency of colour borrows from the white primer beneath so that the colour glows, as if lit from behind".

That colour has broadened considerably, with previously favoured pastel hues alternating with neon-bright swatches and black and white monochromes. These are the eponymous Upright Animal series, the three of which are sufficiently striking to make me wonder whether a pared-back, more austere show of just that series might have had maximum radical impact. Those 'humans' are, appropriately, the height of the artist stretching up, yet their title is initially puzzling, as they look neither human nor animalistic. Perhaps matters are not so simple… and, indeed, all of Parlour's paintings prove to enact a multiplicity of dialogues between opposing states, giving their would-be-straightforward geometries an unexpected dynamism.

The title 'Upright Animal' suggests how the organic shapes of biology lie behind the apparent purity of the geometry – how the mathematical truths of measurement and angles are here thanks to the human impulse of their creation. At first very little of the human is visible, but on closer inspection there are many signs of the artist's hand – in degrees of shading, playful acceptance of some accidental-looking effects, and the variable overlapping of veiled layers. Far from being mechanical, the transparency of Parlour's technique actually reveals the decision-making in her process.

Then there's the back and forth between abstract and figurative. Previously, Parlour's work has looked like paintings of paintings installed in ambiguous spaces – meta-painting of a sort. This body of work seems to have zoomed in on the frames of those paintings so that they look – somehow – both more representational and more abstract: more representational through the suggestion of such architectural details as mouldings or cornices; more abstract, as 'complete shapes', which could have indicated frames or computer screens, no longer appear, and painterly effects come to the surface. True, the mid-sized Invented Vocabulary series coalesce around triangles, but they don't have the natural figurative readings of rectangles. The smallest paintings, clustered together, are presented by title as Detail Shots. They – if paintings may be granted agency – seek to compensate for their small scale and limited fragments of form through burning fluorescence of colour. A sub-plot to that abstract-figurative ambiguity is how some edges are 'clean', as one suggested plane abuts another; while others are 'dirty', with smudges of what might be shading. Is the difference representational, indicating the depths of three dimensional planes? Or are those contrasts decided by what works in abstract terms?


Compile time IV (2017) oil on linen, 150cm x 160cm, private collection



As mention of both the layering of computer screens and the bevelling of wooden mouldings such as dado rails suggests, the chronological setting is also hard to pin down. There is a retro-futurist aesthetic which allows us to read the old (panelling, traditional framing – though Parlour doesn't frame her paintings), against the newer (more modern or brutalist architectural details or the online world seem equally present). So it is that, if computer graphics are hinted at, they are probably not the latest. They might rather be a throwback to the futures of former times as their look comes back into fashion.

Screen and architecture are, of course, very different spaces – and different again from the literal flatness allied to implied space of the painting itself. That may well be Parlour's primary to and fro – between the wall and the painting on it, the illusional space and its denial; between how the paintings read spatially if taken as abstract, or if as figurative. And then we have to consider that these painting of possible architectures are placed in a real architectural space with which they interact in turn…

There's also a back and forth between part and whole. Parlour's previous use of what could be images of full frames is now merely implied by what look like photographic crops of them. Complicating that, the Compile Time series are divided into sections of up to four parts, crisply enough to make me wonder whether they were conjoined sections. That turns out to be a faked move, but one which ratchets up the dialogue between part and whole. The paradoxical idea comes to mind that these paintings are details of themselves: rather as Magritte claimed "this is not a pipe", Parlour might be claiming, in an attractive contradiction, that "this is not a complete painting". As Andy Parkinson has put it "the hint at referential content is always self-referential, bringing us back to the painting itself". (1)

That paradoxical aspect is, I think, where Parlour is at her most original. The other ambiguities have been more widely explored, and are perhaps most notably exploited and subverted in recent practice by Tomma Abts, with whose work Parlour's has much in common. That said, Parlour explores and combines those concerns in her own way and with seductive intelligence. There is plenty here for eye and brain. – Paul Carey-Kent (2), 'Selma Parlour: Upright Animal', Saturation Point, 8th January 2018

(1) in Patterns That Connect, 2017
(2) with thanks to Clare Mitten and Emma Cousin for perceptive comments at the opening




[The area of cadmium yellow in Eleventh hour squared III] could describe a section of wall above what could be read as a window, or rather the top left corner of a window, or maybe instead, a quadrant of a pyramid in bird's eye view. Alternatively, it's a yellow truncated triangle in an arrangement of coloured geometric or architectural shapes on a flat surface. Reading Eleventh Hour Squared III, (2016), as a flat surface becomes more difficult the more that shadows are perceived and the more the luminous blue square is perceived as sky through a window pane flanked by a brown frame, the primary image that I keep settling upon, until the pyramid reasserts itself. But then I am puzzled by the sense of this being a corner or a quadrant. In what context might one see only this part of either a pyramid or a window? Photography comes to mind, the camera frame characteristically cropping objects in this way. And there is something about the colour quality, thinly applied hues, with the white surface behind giving them brilliance, which is reminiscent of a photograph or a computer screen. The paint application, transparent films of oil paint, with no visible traces of the artist's toil, also lends itself to this interpretation. If photography is "drawing with light", then Parlour's paintings are closely akin to photography. However, they are ultimately abstract because figurative interpretations, like the ones suggested above never  quite  work enough  to arrive at definite  conclusions.

Eleventh hour squared III (2016) oil on linen, 41cm x 41cm



What might have been perceived as a window frame probably works best if seen as a picture of a painting, this one. Similarly in Cloud II, (2017), although there is more of a depicted space, a kind of stage within which objects are situated, the objects are like paintings within a painting. In Parlour's work it is as if the hint at referential content is always self-referential, always bringing us back to the painting itself. There may also be references to the history of abstraction, specifically post-painterly abstraction, or colour field painting, if not in the scale of the works, then in the artist's choice of technique, in which the method of production is hidden by the method of production itself, the labour painted out or sublimated. – Andy Parkinson, 'Nine Painters, Syson Gallery, Nottingham', Patterns that Connect, 26th April 2017



On entering this year’s prize, we are met with a small but powerful painting, One, The Side-ness of In-Out by Selma Parlour, dominated by architectural language. Parlour presents an ambiguous, graphic scene that could be interpreted as looking through a segmented frame. Formally it is reminiscent of skirting boards and cornicing, suggesting diverse origins such as Victorian architecture and modern high rise buildings. Shapes are very clearly delineated in a limited, bold colour palette, with little evidence of brushstrokes, with a smooth, flat surface through layers of glaze.  This smooth exterior contributes to the ambiguity in the work, as we are left wondering if the frame is a window, and how are we positioned in relation to it –  is it a room or gallery, a street or square? – Jenny Steele, 'John Moores Painting Prize 2016', A-N, 30th September 2016




One, The Side-ness of In-Out (2015) oil on linen, 61cm x 51cm, private collection






[...] Selma Parlour's oil painting 'One, the Sideness of In-Out', 2015, painted on linen, also echoes the surrealists: Magritte's Strange interiors; Chirico's blue/orange contrasts, for example. It is fairly uncomfortable to look at, being small and a bit cluttered and it engages the analytical mind [...] in a futile attempt to make sense of our perception: the mismatching sides, the folding in at the bottom right hand side; the in-outness. Our edgy attempt to impose perceptual equanimity is hereby challenged. – Sandra Gibson, 'John Moores Painting Prize 2016', Nerve Magazine, 27th August 2016



Selma Parlour’s haunted paintings hover with retinal disparity across the space. The luminous synchronicity, in this case, operates through our intrusion into a private world, where a parallel dimension may exist. The colour shifts in the multiple framing of each composition are exact, and build a system that is modulated through the tonal colour bleeds. In One for each eye IV, each successive colour - cobalt violet, manganese blue, viridian green and brown/ochre - alter the perception of the retinal spatialisation. Here the space between the eyes, which allows binocular vision (the angle from which each eye views an object) creates the imperfect match with its counterpart, a yellow multi-toned field of colour. These paintings are shimmering, intense objects, and their emptiness allows the other works in the space to breathe. – Laurence Noga, ‘Kaleiodscope at Fold Gallery, London’, Saturation Point, 21st August 2016



In delicate, precise paintings referencing iconic architectural geometries, Parlour's canvases are cosmic windows that compress time to merge the forms of present and past. – Cathryn Drake, 'For Love or Money', Artforum, 4th July 2015




One for each eye IV (2016) oil on linen, 76cm x 61cm




The work in this show is quiet, contemplative and often very satisfying. Take Selma Parlour, for instance. Painted in thin washes of oil on linen, Room consists of a nest of squares flanked by trapeziums to create an illusion of depth, while acknowledging the flatness of the canvas. It allows the picture to be read as a flat surface, a box, a truncated pyramid or all three. The game is as old as painting itself, but Parlour’s handling is perfect. A series of extremely subtle colours – mainly warm browns and soft greens plus the white of the ground – have been applied with the exactitude of an illuminator decorating a manuscript. The results are as pleasing as a perfect equation and the acronym QED (quod erat demonstrandum), usually appended to the proof of a theorem, would not be inappropriate. – Sarah Kent, 'Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2011', The Arts Desk, 28th November 2011






Room (2010) oil on linen, 150cm x 163cm, Saatchi collection






© Selma Parlour 2018