Neon secondaries: Headless Woman with Curly Straw


170423 Headless Woman with Curly Straw (2017) oil on canvas 32 x 33.5cm

I started making test brush strokes (in the top left) but it turned into a picture. There wasn’t space for a head. I wanted something to bridge the gap between the cup and the severed neck, but I didn’t want anything too direct or quick for the eye. I like how the curly straw slows down the journey between the two, like a scenic route.

Martin Constable wrote that “… colour is such a devilish realm to pilot” (Turps Banana, issue 14). It’s a good way of putting it, and in those terms, the colour scheme of this painting is a disastrous pile-up of collisions. I’m not averse to “clashing” or “ugly” combinations of hues, in fact I’m curious about them, but two things bug me about the colour scheme of this painting:

  • The tonal composition is frustrating. The biggest tonal contrasts delineate background forms in the top left corner and in the centre, while foreground objects (the hand, and parts of the straw) sink into swamps of mid-tones. Not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case I don’t think it works.
  • The skin on the arm and neck is not only very orange, but is made to look even more so by floating amongst the deep red of the severed neck and the violet expanse of the dress. For me, it’s too orange to read as flesh in an interesting way, and combined with the acid green straw, the whole thing becomes a noisy mess, less than the sum of its parts.

To understand just how orange these flesh tones are, I compared them with samples of flesh tones from other paintings I like, and from the two most orange things I could think of – Oompa Loompas and oranges. Unsurprisingly, my headless woman lands squarely in the orange end of this spectrum. I’ll keep an eye on that in future.


Colour aside, this picture reminds me of Beryl Cook and Nicole Eisenman (often they remind me of each other), and somehow Jana Euler (I can’t find the painting I’m thinking of, but it’s title is Das ist das Bild, von dem die Leute sagen, es verhext die Menschen im Raum, sie konnen jetzt nicht mehr die Warheit sagen [This is the painting that people say bewitches the people in the room so that they can no longer speak the truth]).

There are direct lifts from Dana Schutz – the arm, the fabric, the cramped composition and general grotesque cartoonish surrealism. The fabric is rendered using a technique I used in drawings when I was a kid. I found it again in Schutz’s paintings and recently saw it taken further in a painting by Sascha Braunig.


Beryl Cook Stoking the Fire (1985) oil on panel 20 x 32.5cm


Nicole Eisenman Were-Artist (2007) oil on canvas 154.9 × 127cm


Dana Schutz RCA (2008) oil on canvas 193.4 x 241.3 x 4cm


Sascha Braunig Hilt (2015) oil on linen over panel 81.28 × 53.34cm


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