Mysterious goings-on at the edge of town. A bright green insect with diaphanous wings and angry red eyes stands, with four sucker-like hands on hips, against the backdrop of a livid sunset. Silhouetted against the sky is a giant factory, all pipes and chimneys, a sinister proliferation of equipment. The angry green insect is wearing calf-high skinny black boots and a see-through pink bra with matching knickers. She has drawn herself up to her full height. There is more: three gleaming white bones, sucked clean of flesh, on the ash-grey ground at her feet. The plot thickens.
Uncovered was painted in 1995 but looks anything but dated. Bright, sharp, morbidly fascinating, it still has a sting in its tail for the here and now. The dystopian future inhabited by the hysterical mutant insect seems closer than ever. The picture is a characteristically teasing mise-en-scene by the painter Liz Arnold, who was one of the outstanding artists of her generation. She died in 2001, at the age of 36, after a shockingly brief sruggle with ovarian cancer. Many people had been seduced by her paintings, whether at the “New Contemporaries” show of 1996, or “Beck’s Futures” of 2000, or at her several one-woman exhibitions in the United Kingdom, Europe and America. But because she was too young to have had a retrospective, none of her admirers ever saw the full span of her work, in one place and at one time. An enthralling new show at the Camden Arts Centre does much to fill that gap. Its four curators, all of them artists who knew Arnold personally, have assembled pictures from almost all phases of her career. The exhibition is a labour of love, carefully selected and beautifully displayed.
Arnold’s paintings of the mid-1990s are thronged with an idiosyncratic menagerie of insects, cats and other creatures. There are overtones of science-fiction movies of the 1950s, those DDT-era nightmares of giant spiders and wasps. There is often, also, the enigmatic air of a whodunnit awaiting the arrival of Sherlock Holmes. Petal was the title given by the artist to what might otherwise be thought of as The Curious Case of the Bug in the Night. The bug in question is dressed to kill in a bright mauve, tailored A-line coat, trimmed with ermine. She stands beneath a tree, thinking murderous thoughts, outside a lit window disclosing an adulterous encounter between two other bugs. She clutches a pair of pistols with jewelled handles and treads some notably phallic poison mushrooms underfoot. Elsewhere, Protect Me From What I Want is a disguised portrait of the artist’s cat wearing a Barbara Kruger tee-shirt, while Mythic Heaven, probably Arnold’s best known painting, is the image of a ladybird with hearts instead of spots getting away from it all with a cigarette. She blows a smoke-ring lazily into the blue air.
Many of these pictures look at first sight like cartoons or comic-book illustrations, but hidden depths lurk beneath their bright surfaces. They are a form of narrative painting, albeit wrestled from an unlikely amalgam of sources, and they do what all good narrative paintings do – express emotions and explore ideas. The Thing from Another Planet is the shadow of a larger-than-life creepy-crawlie cast on the rudimentary abbreviation of a brick wall. Behind the joke can be sensed a kind of sadness – a bitter moment of feeling alone, even monstrous, perpetuated in art.
It is not surprising that Arnold should have been a great admirer of the one-time Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston’s more cartoon-like paintings, those melancholic personal-political meditations on a grand scale. Arnold’s later works are subtly suggestive of her own politics, but never in any overbearing way. Beauty Product, of 1999, shows a sinister spillage of gold-and-black patterned nail varnish in an otherwise unpeopled interior – a wry comment, perhaps, on the fetishistic appeal of consumer capitalism and its wider consequences for the world, but shrunk to the scale of a Surrealist sitting-room.
Her last pictures replace the earlier cast of animals with a pack of haunting women, with blank faces. They are engaged in inscrutable activities which include having picnics and conducting scientific experiments. The show ends as abruptly as a person cut off in mid-sentence. Liz Arnold still had much more to say and much more to paint when she died. But she stands confirmed by this exhibition as a painter of rare genius and imagination – someone who created, from her own utterly distinctive universe of forms, a coherent body of work with true staying power. Picasso once said that really good pictures always look as if they were painted yesterday. That is certainly true of these paintings.