4th July - 3rd August 2024



Measurements and Disturbances 

Madeleine Pfull has quickly established an international reputation for her carefully wrought and well observed portrait studies. Her work finds a vitality through the grotesque, or the satirical or even slapstick. The character studies are familiar but heightened and through costuming, wigs, millinery and other theatrical departments, Pfull turns herself into a broad dramatic personae. The paintings have a mis-en-scene and a moment, a gesture or a look. 

In this exhibition Pfull challenged herself to make a scary painting. As difficult as a funny painting, it is hard for oil paint to jump out and arrest the viewer. Even the abject, or the fleshiness of the body, quickly reverts to the surface of the canvas, and the paradox that such a finely painted image is just a bodiless cipher. So like other works in Pfull’s oeuvre the strategy is to slide down the surface of things, to skirt the shock, the anxious after effect, with a boggle eyed face of surprise or a monstrous grimace. Admitting paintings’ limitations in advance also allows Pfull to focus in on what it does best. 

Pfull has mined suburbia and the forest cabin, the classic contexts of horror film and fiction, for a painterly language. It is making the familiar strange, or uncanny. The secret of horror is to surprise the viewer in places that they feel comfortable. Philosophically there is a point to horror fiction in showing society where its invisible or unspoken fears lie. They often uncover what a society represses. 

All these works also use a device that Pfull has used for many years: the double or triple or here a six panel polyptych. Like the frames of cinema, or the panels of a comic strip, the multiple pictures add a temporal element. For Gilles Deleuze, time is pivotal to cinema’s philosophical and aesthetic resonance. In particular horror films rely on temporal disturbance, delay and shock.

The temporal movements of horror films are often fractured and nonlinear. The past threatens to dominate the present and also to shape the future in its own replicated image. Time loops back and refuses to progress as earlier periods haunt the present. Perhaps in Pfull’s paintings the temporal fragment reaches its apotheosis. 

In The Twist 1 and 2, we have the beginning and the end. Starting in the morning, relaxed and calm, with the landscape of a holiday leisure cottage in the background, the lady of the house sits down to read the classic crime novel, Agatha Christie, cigarette in hand. At night, after a whole days reading, finally comes the climactic and shocking twist. The diptych embodies, in the gap between the paintings, the work of suspense. 

Spooky 1, 2 and 3 represents the camp site ghost story. Spooky 2 is particularly scary as shadows, the umbra and penumbra, draw deep lines that deface the face scarily. In this series the temporal aspect is the length of the story, which in the hands of amateurs sometimes drags a little too long. The torch under the chin gag, the perennial spectral conceit, sometimes works on its audience, though often it doesn’t. 

Finally the Tartan Series, is a masterpiece over six panels. It attempts to make the suspense and building anxiety visible in the emotional response of our protagonist. The telephone is a recurring trope in horror films and fiction. Often it is the way we hear the killer’s voice for the first time, or a creepy precursor to the horror, or maybe even the family or neighbor outlining the basic story. We will never hear the conversation in these paintings, but over the series the audience can feel the building tension and the lack of release. 

In the room, filled with smoke and creepy sounds and lighting, Pfull has returned painting back to a theatrical apperception. Perhaps the dead body or the corpse, the death mask, is always in every portrait. Like Dorian Gray’s picture in the attic the painting hides and veils the abject and the monstrous. How can we pierce the surface of the painting though? In Dorian Gray he uses a gun, but maybe a knife will suffice. 

Oliver Watts, 2024