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In the Frame for January 2015: Olivia Gillow’s ‘Insistent Rub’

Having only recently joined the staff team as the new Conservator at Bethlem Museum, I am still very much getting to know the collection, both the archives and the artworks. Preparing this blog post has however, enabled me to closely look at one piece in particular, an oil painting by Olivia Gillow entitled ‘Insistent Rub’, painted in 2001.

Ldbth789  Insistent  Rub (2001) B

Olivia Gillow’s painting is a direct response to actions and behaviour she witnessed within wards at the hospital, carried out by sufferers of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders. Perusing through the Museum’s online catalogue of oil paintings, I was initially drawn to this work in particular.

To me, the simplicity of the imagery is striking. Gillow manages to convey ideas about what can be such complex and prohibitive disorders, and the feelings associated with them, simply through the way in which she has depicted only three elements: hands, soap and water.

The upper hand is angular, distorted, twisted almost, in an unnatural position, perhaps reflecting the physical as well as emotional pain the subject is feeling. The lower hand tightly grips and encloses the slippery soap, ensuring it is not dropped, and will be used to full effect.

Gillow’s use of light and dark is also interesting. The upper hand is bathed in white light, which perhaps not so coincidentally, is also the direction of the water source, the purifier, the cleanser. The rest of the painting is dark, an absence of any background as such. The contradictions between the two are stark. The source of cleanliness and therefore comfort is highlighted, lit up, a beacon of light for the sufferer. The surrounding darkness envelopes everything else. I imagine this may be how some severe sufferers perhaps feel, almost like their compulsive habits are for them clarity and control, and that other non-obsessive behaviour is but a dark and unwelcoming prospect, the unfamiliar unknown.

I find Gillow’s use of colour of interest too, again simplicity has been key here. Keeping the palette to shades of black, pink and white, allows the viewer to really focus on the imagery depicted without distraction, inviting them to really consider the subject in hand.

Another successful element of the painting is the composition. Having placed the subject toward the top of the panel, Gillow has left a dark void beneath. For me this invokes feelings of imbalance, inequality, and insecurity.

Even the title intrigues me. For me, ‘Insistent’ somewhat implies an element of force and an unwillingness of the participant of the action. Although it’s possible many sufferers see their actions as a means of controlling their own personal situation, as described earlier, the huge contradiction therein lies in the fact that more often the disorder is largely the controlling party. I feel the title clearly reflects this idea of ‘the power struggle’.

This painting is a simple but extremely powerful reminder of the emotions and feelings that effect not only OCD sufferers, but us all as human beings at one time or another. We can all relate to notions of comfort and unease, safety and anxiety, control and powerlessness.

‘Insistent Rub’ will be on display within the Permanent Gallery at the new Museum, opening in mid-February 2015.