Desdemona for Celia
by Hilton

The season-opening exhibition in Gallery Met is a collaboration of artist Celia Paul and New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als.

Earlier this year, at the end of a long winter, the curator and writer Dodie Kazanjian asked me to lunch. During our meeting she asked if I would be interested in doing some work for the estimable Gallery Met—an installation, perhaps, that would relate to, and say something about, Verdi’s Otello, the first production of the season. As we began to think about the opera and what it meant in the contemporary world, I showed Dodie some photographs I had taken of an English-born, London-based artist named Celia Paul, whose work Dodie and I both admire. I had met Paul some months before Dodie and I sat down and was immediately impressed by her beautiful, haunting, and impasto-rich paintings—paintings made by an artist who inspired pictures.

The majority of Paul’s paintings—or the majority of the paintings I saw then—were of women: her mother primarily and then her sisters and herself. In recent years, though, Paul added several elements to her repertoire; indeed, her images of the elements—water and sky—were as rich, to me, as the faces she drew and painted with such precision. Taken together with my photographs, Dodie and I felt Paul’s paintings and drawings were deeply evocative of the character of Desdemona—one of the more mysterious figures in Shakespeare’s great play and Verdi’s unforgettable opera, despite the fact that so much of the plot turns on her and her actions.

So, that’s how our collaboration began—by making a space that reminded us not only of Venice but of the walls in Paul’s London studio. We placed the paintings and drawings of women sitting in isolated space as Desdemona sits for so much of the opera in a kind of isolated space—misunderstood, cherished, destroyed. Desdemona is an innocent who wants to love, just like the women in Paul’s paintings desire to be seen. And while I thought about all of this I listened to Verdi’s masterpiece on full blast; his passionate voices helped shape our gallery of love, loss, and regret. Otello and Desdemona know one another without knowing anything at all. And their “mixed” marriage and the hatred and violence surrounding it say as much about how difference is viewed, still, as any contemporary critique—or manifesto. —Hilton Als

Celia Paul, Painter and Model
Celia Paul, Painter and Model, 2012
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

Celia Paul, Kate Resting
Celia Paul, Kate Resting, 2009
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

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