Liz Dawson graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in 2004 and now lives and works in Hamburg.  Her work focuses on themes of categorisation, recognition and the miniature.  Her recent exhibitions include Underlying Structure at Kunstraum E, Leipzig, in 2015 and fragment, a solo exhibition at Werkstadt, Berlin, in 2016.


This text, by Richard Neal, was written in August 2013 for the exhibition 'Likeness'.

“Who made thee?” ponders the Socrates rendered by Paul Valéry in Eupalinos. “Thou resemblest nothing, and yet thou art not shapeless. Art thou a sport of nature, O nameless thing … ?” He is dumbfounded, though fascinated, by an object he has just picked up from the shore, and cannot tell what it is or whence it came, whether it be a carving left unfinished or worn by the sea, or a natural fragment that happens to have come to resemble art. It is utterly real, familiar, but though it is in his actual physical and visual grasp, it remains beyond the clasp of his recognition and knowledge. He looks and sees, and yet does not. When asked by his interlocutor of what the object had been made, he replies, “the same matter as its form: matter for doubt”. To an acute viewer of Liz Dawson’s paintings and drawings, this sensation is familiar.

Socrates throws his find back into the sea and his looking, rather than leading to enlightenment as to the object, leads to insight into the activities of man and nature. Dawson’s work forces us likewise simultaneously back to the nature of how paintings are made, how they are seen, and the type of things we are wont to see in them, from habit, expectation and desire. The painting and the viewer are held and suspended, and, in their mutually aware suspension, which is a form of death, see themselves.

Take Things of a Middle Nature, No 2. It may even be the object found by the Greek philosopher, at an earlier stage in its existence, perhaps. One’s eye roams and roams over the most acute and exact detail, across shifting textures and contours. The ambiguity is the stronger for the precision in its rendering, which borders on verisimilitude. The drawing has no doubt, and we cannot ascribe any uncertainty to romantically motivated haziness in technique, of which there is none. Yet we do not grasp anything. We hazard stone, perhaps lichen-covered and weathered, perhaps an agglomeration, yet whether it is one thing or many is also not certain. Familiarity with other of the artist’s works leads one to suspect haunches, fur, a rearing mouth emerging, yet it does not resolve. The scale could be anything between micro and macro.

The title of this drawing arises from one of the world’s earliest scientific organisations, the Academy of Linceans, founded by a Prince Federico Cesi in 1603, and which numbered Galileo as a member. One aspect of their work was the prizing of visual description as a means of investigation, and they set out to depict and, in so doing, classify the world. Some objects defeated them, and did not fit into their system of categories, and these, such as fossilised wood, were given the status “middle nature”. In the long run it was these that showed up the limitation of their approach as a foundation of knowledge, though it produced the most exquisite pictorial description. We are placed back in their position by the artist, and are no less ignorant.

There are other works where you think you know: Flight II, for instance. A duck, you will say. Yet what of the creature nonchalantly, though proprietorially, crouching on its back? One notes the tail, but tries to ignore the fact that it appears to be made of twigs, and moves to the more reassuring texture of the wing. Then there is the stooped head, and one’s eye moves up and down, simultaneously failing to register eyes or mouth, noticing askance the shaggy, weather-beaten raggedness of the material which could be shale or wood or paper, take your pick, and also constantly being convinced of recognition, of a bird, of a being.

At this point, the artist’s method must be considered. Dawson constructs models on a miniature scale which include some setting, photographs them and then makes the painting. The materials include twigs, wood shavings, stone, paper, tape, plastic. The duck is not a duck. One can play a game of guessing materials from the images, though personally speaking, I find the experience I have tried to outline, of looking without knowing, to be the key one. Creating a substitute of a motif, investing it with so many familiar attributes but divesting it of just as many others, leaves us with a shell, a potential but elusive chimera.

More than one photograph is used, and the model itself is also present for reference. It is not a question of a systematic reproduction of a recorded image, but rather that photography is used in the process of synthesizing an image from a composite source, a reconfiguring of an approach familiar to centuries of painters depicting the world in their ateliers.

The pictures themselves would also be recognised in their compositions and genres by artists from centuries gone by. By substituting what appears to be a loop of wood-shaving for the sun in Sunset, with light emanating from within and above, an overt classicism is invoked, with a symbol from Poussin’s Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons combined with the light of Claude and Turner. The Desert Island may well be Naxos, and the rolling train of wood slivers, with its red rider astride a blue beast, could be Bacchus hastening to Ariadne. Flight I must, to these eyes at least, surely be the Victory of Samothrace, let loose on the hillside, though whether from millennia past or future, I cannot say.

The classicism – explicit and clear though arrived at via a strange and circuitous route (what is the odd toy-like figure being ridden across the sun-baked mountain in Sunset?) – is appropriate. The technical aspect of holding up the rich and strange in a clear, cool light marries with the classical ordering of a world of feeling in a state of frozen grace. And beauty is mixed with deathliness, lost worlds and vanished time. The models, standing as the ungraspable motifs, serve here as carcasses, too – of the things you do not see, but wish to, and of painting itself.

They may also be considered as a (slightly perverse) form of abstraction. Instead of emptying out absolutely all subject matter and leaving only the paint, just the life is taken, and ghosts of the familiar are reinstated, with all the psychological complexity suspended though not disappeared. The formal qualities are nonetheless heightened: witness the dynamics of the grained splinters in Desert Island, twisting and moving, pushing and pulling just as Kandinsky would have told you in Point and Line to Plane. 

It is an alternative route on the everlasting path of the death of painting, as if to say these are the lengths to which one must go, in order to keep your forms, your harmonies, your details and familiars, and pictures from time past. Everything else must be placed in doubt, clearly.