The Fragile Self

An exhibition of ‘non-portraiture’ at Edinburgh’s Arusha Gallery this November, searches for identity in the details of human gesture.

Painter Shelly Tregoning’s very first solo exhibition captures a moment in our history when identity, particularly the difference between our private and public identity, has never been more relevant. At a time when our daughters are bending themselves, quite literally, to the digitally enhanced ideals of social media, and modern ideas of masculinity are increasingly fluid, this new collection of paintings and drawings, titled Fragile, seeks to reveal the psychological complexities beneath our conscious presentations of self.

‘When I’m painting, I’m interested in the human condition’ says Shelly, whose 2011 graduation from University College Falmouth has been followed by selection for the National Open Art Competition, Discerning Eye, Royal West of England Academy shows and prestigious Threadneedle Prize Exhibition. ‘They happen to all of us, those familiar human things – love, happiness, disappointment, fear – they are experiences that are played out in all cultures. These things are ‘base’, if I can call them that, that’s why I play with ‘base’ colours, with very little else around them on the canvas.’ These ‘base’ colours, as Shelly describes them – pure reds, yellows, blues, greens and blacks – define a series of faceless figures, captured in moments of telling physical gesture. Far from being obscure in their simplicity, our ability to read, and therefore relate to, that moment of physicality, makes this series of paintings entirely compelling. ‘These are not portraits’ Shelly continues. ‘My study of the human form is an anthropological thing, in essence. I am interested in how a person holds themselves, the angle of their head, the curve of their body, the way they rest their hand or arm in that moment. A person’s physicality betrays so many things. I find that fascinating. One figure in my painting stands for an inherent communality between all human beings.’

Born in Mauritius, raised in Barbados, and resident at other times in Jamaica, Spain and Bahrain, and then sent to boarding school in England at the age of twelve, Shelly has had greater experience than most of contrasting cultures and ethnicity. ‘I paint people of all colours’ she says without irony, ‘of all ages, both male and female. When I was studying I loved life drawing, but I never wanted to make ‘pictures’, if that makes sense. I wanted my work to be representational of emotional place, of how human form can act as a metaphor. I love drawing people – I never tire of it – and I admire the swift, perfect drawings of the human figure by artists like Degas, those lightly held ballet poses, or the child waiting for her turn on the dance floor. It’s that moment, you know, when anticipation, introspection, or power, are expressed in the shape and flex of the body. That’s what interests me.’ The innate power of the male form, in particular, is a notable theme in her work. ‘I’m especially interested in drawing men. As a child I always wanted to play with the boys, to do the ‘strong’ stuff, you know? I’m interested in the monumentality of the male shape and how the masculine body works. When I was younger I studied dancing. Professional male dancers are hugely built, but at the same time they use their bodies to express the delicate, the emotional. In so many cultures, men are required to hide their vulnerability, they are expected to live up to society’s preconceptions of maleness. As I’ve got older I’ve developed an interest in the concept of masculinity.’ Her paintings of women, of languid girls stood pensive, or stretched idly beneath a tree, and mothers, drawn in physical counterpoint to their inquisitive children, are equally nuanced, with a quality distinct from that of her images of men. ‘The female form is entirely different, because in a woman’s body weight is distributed differently, their physical placement is so different, so female. It’s an entirely different physical vibe.’

Fine draughtsmanship, emotive colour and exquisite economy of line define this fascinating collection of paintings, which are accompanied by a series of beautiful handmade prints, and two collections of drawings entitled ‘Hirsute’, in which men’s head and facial hair are presented as a means of expressing masculinity, as well as personal and religious identity, and the deeply poignant ‘Selfie’ series, which explores the way young girls have begun to create idealised versions of themselves to meet the demands of an increasingly digital social world. See FRAGILE from 10th November to 7th December at Arusha Gallery, Dundas Street, Edinburgh, EH3 6QG or visit and

Drawings from the Selfie series

Drawings from the Selfie series

Fragile Oil on Linen

Fragile – Oil on Linen

Under the Macrocarpa Tree -Oil on Linen

Under the Macrocarpa Tree -Oil on Linen

Shelly Tregonning at her studio_photo credit Steve Tanner

Shelly Tregonning at her studio_photo credit Steve Tanner

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