Open Frequency 2008: Nadia Hebson selected by Cathy Lomax

Open Frequency 2008: Nadia Hebson selected by Cathy Lomax Nadia Hebson, Valser (installed in Palazzo Doria Pamphlji, Rome), 2008. Painting installation

Cathy Lomax profiles the work of Nadia Hebson

Nadia Hebson's paintings are beautifully compulsive, teeming with art historical references that are in the true nature of the uncanny both familiar and strange. Her skilled old master techniques involve building up tentative layers of oil paint on copper, zinc or canvas, but despite this seemingly traditional medium the work is in no way reactionary or indeed nostalgic. It has instead an unsettling familiarity that mainlines into an intensely distilled deep emotion.

Her work encompasses all aspects of the historical painters' pantheon including portraiture, landscape and still life. Her portraits in particular have a deep seductive sadness, such as that found in the very best romantic novel or maudlin singer / songwriter ballad. These portraits are deeply introspective but counter intuitively manage to communicate this personal feeling to the viewer. They embody something described by C.S Lewis in his essay 'The Weight of Glory' 'I am almost committing an indecency', he said 'I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you - the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence... the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something which has never actually appeared in our experience'.1 He called this something Sehnsucht, a sense that leaves you aching with longing for something you know but can't place. It is this that Hebson's wan romantic heroines encompass.

Her seascapes are similarly dark; 'Black Sea' (2007) and 'Valser' (2008) show a schooner tossed about on an impossibly stormy sea. A series of these seascapes / wrecks were included in The Whiteness of the Whale, a show inspired by Melville's Moby Dick (1851) which Hebson curated at Transition Gallery in 2007 (the show also included Reece Jones and Anna-Karin Jansson). The opening night of the show featured an endurance tag reading of Moby Dick, giving the work an eerily atmospheric context.

Hebson's early work included versions of old master paintings installed in a garden shed, only viewable through the shed windows. Another work – 'Goria' (from Phantasmagoria) (2003) – featured a landscape of papier-mâché trees swirling in a disconcerting sea of dry ice. At the back of the gallery through the mist was a small portrait of a young woman with a single tear, in a costume reminiscent of that worn by the anonymous subject of Hans Memling's 1480 'Portrait of a Young Woman'. More recent work during a residency in Rome focuses on Hadrian's relationship with Antinous. Taking in references such as Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Hebson depicts Antinous as a hermaphrodite, his composite, idealised beauty borrowed from numerous sources.

Hebson's paintings could be seen as describing beauty at the point of collapse – shipwrecks, fading flowers, crying portraits. They communicate an empathetic melancholia or Sehnsucht that examines the palatability of sentimentality in a non-ironic way. This makes her work particularly revolutionary in the current contemporary art environment, eschewing the easy path of irony for something much more important and dangerous.

Cathy Lomax, November 2008


1 C S Lewis, 'The Weight of Glory', preached originally as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, 8 June 1942. Published in C S Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, London, 2000

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Artist's biography

Born in 1974 (Romsey, UK), Hebson studied at Central St. Martins and the Royal Academy Schools. Currently the Durham Cathedral Artist in Residence, earlier this year she was awarded the Derek Hill scholarship and spent three months at The British Academy in Rome. She has exhibited internationally and was selected for this year's Jerwood Contemporary Painters exhibition. She has previously been a recipient of an Arts Council Award and Duveen Woman Artist Award. For the last four years Hebson has lived and worked in Berlin and the UK. She has just won the Sovereign European Art Prize 2008, the judges for this included Tim Marlowe, Philly Adams, Jarvis Cocker and Alan Yentob.

About Cathy Lomax

Cathy Lomax's curatorial interests are very varied; her projects are drawn together by a theme which is generally quite tangible and is often based in aspects of popular or everyday culture. Most of her curatorial work takes place at Transition Gallery which is the space that she set up in 2002 after finishing her Fine Art MA at Central St Martins.

Lomax is also a practising artist; she likes to draw all the strands of her practice together which means she will often make work for projects that she is curating. In her curated shows she likes to mix together emerging and more established artists often combining practitioners from different strands of the arts. Previous projects have included fine artists alongside illustrators, fashion photographers, costume makers etc etc.

The educational background of the artist is irrelevant and she often works with outsider artists and practitioners who haven't followed the traditional art school route. 'I like to relate my curated projects to where thay are taking place and generally avoid traditional 'white cube' style exhibitions.'

Open Frequency keeps you in touch with new developments in contemporary art practice from across the UK. The artists are selected and profiled by leading curators, artists and writers, presenting the work of artists to watch out for over the coming year. Open Frequency represents a forward-looking glance today of the artists who will be setting the agenda tomorrow.