For those who have yet to encounter the work of Donna Huddleston, her first show with Simon Lee Gallery in Mayfair is the perfect introduction. It has all those characteristics for which she has long been admired: the meticulous line, the poise of composition, the enigmatic narratives that hover but never land – yet here everything seems intensified just a few degrees further by the isolation of the past two years.
Drawing has always been Huddleston’s medium: graphite pencil, Caran d’Ache crayon and recently, metalpoint. When lent to large-scale composition these are the most demanding of media – requiring stamina and steely application. I think of Michael Landy’s retrospective in 2013, balefully titled “20 years of pressing hard”.
Some of the pleasure in the work derives from a visceral enjoyment of its sheer precision, the manifest clarity of decision-making – on a blank piece of paper there is literally nowhere to hide. This could not be more sharply epitomised by the triptych of silverpoint drawings titled As You Like It, 2021. It is a new feature of this body of work that the artist has used her own likeness, where once her youthful female figures were more generic. Here she has rendered herself as a series of hieratic heads – each tilted progressively further, evoking a toppled statue. In each, the impassive stare of the subject belies the implied drama of the situation. And silverpoint is a medium that allows for not the slightest vacillation of purpose: literally silver pressed into a prepared ground, it is a one-shot, high-wire act that admits no corrections. Over time, the metal will oxidise and darken from the bright, shimmery quality it has now, and this mutability only serves to emphasise the delicacy of the whole.
The artist appears again in profile in The Stand In, 2021. In this larger drawing in pencil and Caran d’Ache colours, she renders herself as a grande dame, arch of eyebrow and severely coiffed. Huddleston has always been good on the sharply observed fashion detail – a Cuban heel, a maven manicure – they speak to the way we construct our own persona, a detail at a time. It is perhaps an understanding Huddleston gained in her earlier, theatrical training. In The Stand In, incidentally a theatrical term itself, the central figure stands framed by two wood-grained plinths, her elbows resting on blue cushions. The image has the formality of a 19th century commercial studio portrait set-up. In her raised hand the figure gathers a white cloth that seems to hang from the top of the frame; on the elbow of the other arm, a miniature figure balances, wide-eyed, her handkerchief fluttering away to the ground from her hand. What is going on here? Does the tiny figure represent an alter-ego, a conscience, an apparition? Does knowing matter? I don’t know that it does. What does seem to matter is the intensity of the gaze between the two, the parted lips of the main figure who appears just about to say something. The hand fluttering around her slender throat seems to signal, mutely, some parallel message.
Eclipse, 2021 is the first work you see as you enter the gallery; small scale and intricately composed it draws you in to interrogate the shifting motifs. Tall slender arches like an aqueduct dominate the bottom half of the page, but as the eye travels downwards, they morph into blinds in tall windows – a tassel dangles towards the bottom edge of the paper. Through and in between the arches weave sinuous lines that are unmistakably a water level, and suddenly what was architectural becomes a vessel for flowers. Tall tulips bend upwards to the top of the image, their petals wrapping around the abstract forms, creating a spatial effect every bit as complex and engrossing as a Tomma Abts composition. It is as brilliant as it is playful, a visual puzzle or palimpsest expertly achieved.
Huddleston has included some surprises in the show: a little collage, Rising Fawn, 2021, has the diminutive figure of a young Liza Minnelli perched on a section of piano keys. The third element is a blue-tipped carnation, which creates the sense of homage to the music and the Hollywood star. At a totally different point on the register of female icons, Hag, 2021 features the leering, toothless face of Walt Disney’s witch from Snow White (1937). The face looms out of hallucinogenically pulsating graphic patterns – all achieved in monochrome graphite pencil.
This is an incredibly strong group of works that richly repays close looking. Let your imagination roam free.
Simon Lee Gallery, 12 Berkeley Street, London W1J 8DT. Open Monday to Friday, 09.30–18.00, Saturday 10.00–18.00. Exhibition continues until 26 February 2022. www.simonleegallery.com