A Play of Features | Curated by Aly Helyer and William Gustaffson  | Union Gallery, London

Simon Burton | Aly Helyer | Paul Housley | Norman Hyams | Anna Jung Seo

February 18th - March 18th 


“…..you will hesitate, troubled by the uncertainty of his expression and not daring to smile to explain yourself or shed tears. When a young man stands before one who is old, there often arises - as it never does when he faces someone young - an ability to understand clearly the language at hand, which takes the form of an image yet is as swift, direct and startling as a rejoinder, and which we call the play of features.” (pg. 19)………….

“How many of many of us have been left wondering as to the meaning and intention of words spoken by an old person, and more especially of certain expressions in his gaze, a quivering of the nose, a puckering of the mouth. Sometimes we smile when we look at old people, as we would in the presence of charming old lunatics. But at times we are fearful, too, as we are in the company of madmen. In a long lifetime a smile has so often turned on the mouth’s hinges; anger or tenderness have so often rekindled the eye’s fire or sounded the voices’ trumpet, and so often has vivid and ever-ready blood had to race all at once to the cheek’s transparency, that the mouth, its springs worn out, no longer opens with the effort, or does not properly close when seriousness returns. The eye’s fire does not catch any more, dimmed by smoke; cheeks no longer turn red, or else, stagnant as crimson lakes, redden excessively. The face no longer precisely translates each thought or emotion, into the appropriate expression, omitting either the emotion , without which an affirmation becomes a joke, or affectionate sarcasm, without which a boast becomes a threat; instead of being the figurative yet accurate language of our feelings, the face becomes a kind of rambling nonsense, saddening and indistinct, which sometimes, between two contradictory and disconnected expressions, leaves a sudden space for our disquiet, our comments, our thoughtfulness.’ (pg. 19/20)

The passages above are taken from Marcel Proust’s (b.1871, d.1922) unfinished and untitled essay (est. 1895) on French 18th century painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (b.1699, d.1779), and were the source of inspiration for the exhibition.

No matter if the writings of Proust or the works of Chardin are known to you, we ask you, the viewer, to use the passages to stand parallel to the exhibition. In how Proust’s analysis of the human expression in Chardin’s work, see how the artists use their individual modes contemporary of painting to apply to their own figuration and narratives. Loose and varied conversations between abstracted figures populate the exhibition, born from the artists’ interpretations of the figure.

Take the stance of the ambiguous observer.

© Simon Burton 2019