Impresa: the strange world of Katharine Aarrestad

Two stiff little girls, buttoned up Victorian style; a doll with a stick for an arm; a cover drawn back like a veil. This was my introduction to the strange world of Katharine Aarrestad and I was at once captivated and intrigued. Then I read the title of the painting, ‘Let me undress her sometimes’ and I was more than captivated, I was beguiled.

As a writer I always look for the narrative in things – the who, the what and the why. In Aarrestad’s work I found all these questions embodied (and embedded) within a single piece of reverse-painted glass. Here was nostalgia (two girls with a doll), viewed through a modern gaze (who exactly wants to undress whom). When I discovered that Aarrestad’s images had been ferreted out from libraries and museums and second-hand bookshops – those dusty palaces of the past – another layer of her work made sense. These paintings belonged alongside words.

The impresa is a late medieval and Renaissance art form. Its name is taken from the Italian, ‘impresa’, meaning an emblem or device, usually with a motto. Thus an impresa is an amalgam of the body (the picture) and the soul (the text), the combination of which gives a covert meaning – the perfect description of Aarrestad’s work.

In Aarrestad’s Impresa a doll covered by snow in ‘They may still find her…’ is as lost and frozen as the disrupted childhood of its owner that the title suggests. The crouching boy in ‘his lips retain the purple stain of juice upon them yet’ evokes both the pleasure and the danger lurking in any good children’s book. The men on ships that appear wrecked in ‘Oh what hard destiny can have brought thee hither?’ are only fishing, yet the biblical tone of the title combined with the fingers of ocean creeping over the deck imply anything but. Even the monumental dignity of the Muslim grouping in ‘by family arrangement’ has been pre-ordained in some way, although whether by the artist or the viewer or the subjects themselves is hard to say.

In Aarrestad’s more literal images – Victorian texts, pious, even lofty and instantly recognisable as religious exhortations – there are double meanings too. The homily on ‘Enconium: Thy gentleness’ could just as well be spoken without the invocation of the divine (Enconium being Latin for a piece of writing or speech that praises someone highly); while the heliobore in ‘Elogium: Awake thou’ is a flower that was used in witchcraft to promote invisibility. In ‘thread of life: a lost golden age’ locusts crawl in the bucolic estate of an 18th century aristocrat, or a post-apocalyptic landscape depending on how you look. Either way, the locusts’ wings are as diaphanous, and their bite as lethal, as the fairies that fly elsewhere in Aarrestad’s work.

This wonderful but eerie mix of truth-telling and make-believe is as much an emblem of our collective consciousness and personal identity as it is simply the re-invigorating of lost images from our past. We see them and we understand. We bring to them memory, experience and foreknowledge – all things about which we tell many truths and even more lies. It is Aarrestad’s skill in choosing image, size, scale, title, colour and tone, amongst other things, that makes us see in them something at once familiar and strange. She forces us to ask those questions – what, how, why – while appearing not to ask anything at all. In this way her work is indeed a beguilement, a trick, a disturbing and uncanny charm.

© Mary Paulson-Ellis, 2012