Flickering from behind the back wall of König London, the silhouettes of three swimmers punctuate a translucent surface. Cut from aluminium and pressed between sheets of spray-painted plastic, their edges unfurl into effusions of colour, like splodges of ink dissolving in a pool. In contrast to traditional figurative painting, Plongée (Diving, 1967) by Evelyne Axell – a Belgian artist active from 1964 to 1972 – literally contains its subject inside its support. Enveloped inside a misted window, the swimmers flaunt themselves as physical objects. Suspended in a state of semi-abstraction, they hover towards their primary origins as raw materials: pieces of metal fizzing in a frame.
At once dreamy and deadpan, Plongée encapsulates the overall effect of ‘Cheese’, a concise retrospective of Axell’s work curated by Angela Stief. Trained under René Magritte and championed by the critic and curator Pierre Restany, Axell developed a unique method of working in her short-lived career, conjuring surreal effects through a frank, stripped-back approach to material. In Deux femmes aux bulles (Two Women With Bubbles, 1967), a woman’s body warps and doubles through raw bits of canvas sheathed in a transparent screen, while in L’Égocentrique 2 (The Egocentric 2, 1968), a spectral figure grows out of the frame as a crudely cut piece of plastic dwarfing its support.
Pushing out of their states as representations, Axell’s figures are caught on the cusp of losing themselves: a condition that’s erotically depicted in an early oil painting, Ice Cream I (1964). A woman’s face in black and white swells from an undulating technicolour background. Eyes rapturously shut, she pushes her tongue into an ice cream shining neon in her hand, its bright juices flowing over her monochromatic skin. Stirred into the act of licking, she is submerged by her woozy surroundings, aroused to a point of near abstraction. Meanwhile, in two later paintings – Clef de contact rose (Pink Ignition Key) and Clef de contact jaune (Yellow Ignition Key, both 1966) – a visual pun gives way to pure absorption as keys and slits are depicted in slick intersections, gratifying our basic pleasure in seeing links; while in Femme Homard (Lobster Woman, 1967), sex jerks into whimsy as a woman clenches up towards the outline of a lobster exploding over her head like an hallucination.
Endlessly flirting with abstraction, Axell’s figures feel noncommittal and capricious. In Cheese One and Poupette (both 1969), anonymous female icons literally let themselves go. Portrayed on identical sheets of painted glass that have been mounted on top of each other, their features tighten from the front; split, sag and melt from the side. Meanwhile, in the double-sided drawing La Religieuse – Portrait de Francois Mercks (The Nun – Portrait of Francois Mercks, 1970), depictions of saintly figures swerve into improvization: a veil becomes a vulva; a nipple, a spiral; a woman’s body, a spider of ink. Preserving traces of their earlier forms, Axell’s figures are inextricably bound up in the physical stuff from which they’re made.
Displayed at the forefront of the show, Marine (1972) is perhaps a self-portrait. The voluptuous outline of a reclining figure emerges from a schematic sea of navy blue. Modelled in sweeps of gold on glass, she glows out of the ground like a hologram. A ripple of blue caresses her curves like a beckoning lover, while the cut-out of a gull hovers above, encroaching over the frame. Sliding between two spaces, she looks askance through a pair of sunglasses, which chime with the material of the support. Glowing ultramarine, the glasses could be seen as a tribute to how Axell represents her subjects. Breaking them down, throwing them sideways, eye cocked in dreamy disbelief.
Evelyne Axell, 'CHEESE' was on view at König London from 28 June until 28 July 2018.
Main image: Installation view, Evelyne Axell, Cheese, at König London 2018. Photograph: Damian Griffiths
First published in Issue 198