Peeling back perception

    Whenever I write something that annoys a portion of my readers, among the complaints sent to me I invariably find the advice that I return to my own country and stay there. It matters not that I was born in Basingstoke. Or that I have supported Reading FC since I was five. What matters is the cluster of foreign-looking Zs gathered in my surname, and the dark, Voldemorty aspect of my Christian name.

    The irony is that proper foreigners have played a jolly important role in the making of British art. How might we imagine Henry VIII if Hans Holbein, from Augsburg, had not arrived here to record him? What would British portraiture be without Van Dyck? There’s a charming show at the Queen’s Gallery about the love between Victoria and Albert, and its most resonant images were painted by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, from Menzenschwand, in the Black Forest. In the 20th century, the artists who mattered were Francis Bacon from Ireland, Lucian Freud from Berlin, Wyndham Lewis from Canada, Jacob Epstein from New York, and the German-born Frank Auerbach, whose middle name is Helmut. And to this fine list of alien achievers we might now append the name of Angela de la Cruz.

    My Spanish is shaky, but doesn’t Angela de la Cruz mean angel of the cross? Her birthplace is Corunna, in Galicia, a storm-tossed Atlantic sea town in which Picasso spent his most turbulent early years. It was on the beach there that Picasso traumatically glimpsed his first pubic hair. His baby sister died here, too, of diphtheria. So perhaps some of the mysterious Catholic whisperings that are a feature of De la Cruz’s art, the hidden meanings, the dark implications, can be understood as the birthright of those who come from here? A compact retrospective of De la Cruz’s career has opened at the Camden Arts Centre. It contains only a sample of the work she has produced since 1995. It’s a retrospective in haiku: just a few emblematic pieces from key phases in her development, airily presented. Thus the Catholic passions that underpin her art are successfully disguised beneath deceptive surface calmness. Plenty of visitors will miss them.

    De la Cruz was already in her twenties when she moved to London in 1989. At the Slade she completed an MA in sculpture and critical theory. The story of her subsequent development — the story of her art — can be encapsulated as the meeting of hot and tremulous Spanish sensibilities with cold and dispassionate theoretical sensemaking. Think of a flamenco dancer studying deconstruction. Or perhaps a religious flagellant working in the logistics department of a local council. A typical early work, Homeless, from 1996, consists of a large canvas, painted a whitish yellow, which has been broken in two, then pressed into a corner. When I say whitish yellow, I mean urine-coloured. It’s as if some wretched alley man has peed on a grubby white mattress and then brusquely stood it up against a wall. Homeless is a perfect title because it encourages you to imagine a pitiful human story line in an artwork that might otherwise pass for cool gallery minimalism.

    It’s a common effect in De la Cruz’s work. All of her art appears slight. None of it actually is. She seems to class herself as a painter, and in the exhibition literature much is made of her accidental discovery one day of the powerful effect a broken stretcher had on the appearance of a painted canvas. The cross bar had snapped and the canvas had slumped. Something rigid had become something saggy. Imagine a human being without a spine. The clear identity of a painting, established so firmly after so many centuries of recurrent use, was suddenly challenged.

    De la Cruz’s defenders have exercised their brains mightily seeking to decide whether a slumped canvas is still a painting, or if it now qualifies as a sculpture. To my eyes, what counts in her art is the emotional weight she achieves with her seemingly minimal ploys. What strange, secretive, unknowable art this is. A piece called Ashamed, from 1995, is a lovely example: a second peewhite canvas, this time a tiny one that presses itself against the wall like a shivering dog scared of an angry owner. If you’ve ever felt the need to huddle behind a cushion or wished the walls would swallow you, you will recognise the urge to make yourself small being explored here. Working slyly with hints and suggestions, De la Cruz’s art has intense conversations with bits of you that do not even know they are being talked to.

    In more recent times, she has introduced real pieces of furniture into her work, turning it more obviously into sculpture. The furniture is invariably broken or sagging. Notably, in a creepy piece called Self, from 1997. Two dark brown canvases are engaged in a dramatic face-off. One, smeared with what looks like excrement, hangs on a wall opposite a broken version of itself, slumped in a ruined chair. It’s like someone who’s been crippled examining their previous appearance in a mirror. De la Cruz’s unsettling talent for endowing inanimate studio stuff with shifting human emotions is being given its most visceral run-out.

    That is how the show works, with suggestions, clues, hints and innuendo. This is an event best viewed in slow-mo as you wander among the whispery mysteries dotted about the walls and floors, and ponder their elusive promptings. The results are memorable, thought-provoking and occasionally lovely.