By Tom Jeffreys

“There are,” we're told quite categorically, “only three types of water.” In Naomi Frears' short film, A Study in Hindsight (2016), poet Ella Frears (the artist's daughter) slowly speaks this strange assertion over an empty black screen. There's a pause. And then come the images: to the left are stacks of chairs – like you might remember from the back of a school assembly hall. To the right is water, glittering a bit, yellow-blue. It's a shallow-looking pool, but beach or leisure centre I can't really tell. Both images are cropped so close that there is no context (temporal, geographic) in which to find your bearings. No where or when. So my eye is drawn instead to the rhythms: the repeating lines of the chairs, their curved wooden backs and straight metal supports, and the rippling dance of the water. Soon Ella's voice returns to classify the three types of water: “Falling. Holding. Light.” Yes, yes, yes, but which is which?

Study In Hindsight | Video | Naomi Frears | 2016

Ella's poem was commissioned in response to an earlier film, Still Here (2014). In both works, text and image sporadically synchronise; more often, things slide around. The soundtracks for Still Here were completely separate from the film. But in Hindsight there is sometimes a correspondence between what we see and what we hear (a boy opens his arms wide “like Jesus at the seaside” or two shots of “that pond there, with the leaves”); at other moments, as Hamlet had it, “the time is out of joint”. Often, the poet speaks of subjects that have faded from view or that we have yet to see: topiary as a form of parenting, lightning as editor, the artist's reflection as film-maker's signature. As a condensed revisiting of the earlier work, Hindsight functions (as its title suggests) like memory: focusing attention on times or ideas that feel more significant now; forgetting other things altogether.

Still Here was Frears' first foray into film. Up to that point she was primarily known for inscrutably atmospheric work across drawing, painting and printmaking. Since then, while continuing to paint and draw, Frears has produced multiple works on film. “My brain is filming all the time,” she tells me, although the actual act of filming is usually done in secret. Six years on, Frears' excitement remains palpable. “The whole phenomenon of recording something in time, to rewatch, edit, re-edit... That's still magic to me.”

A number of Frears' films bring together text and moving image to provide snippets of narrative against still or slowly moving backdrops. In Doom, Theft, And Other Stories (2018), scrolling bright-coloured texts recall adolescent romances or secret crimes from the cusp of adulthood. Frears gives us intimate moments, but held at a distance by the passing of time. The worlds shown in this film (the bottom of a swimming pool, the shadows across a curtain) are just backdrops to memory. A concrete staircase becomes a sheet of writing paper, considerately lined with white paint. I feel like I'm sitting on a train, allowing thoughts to wander as the world blurs by outside. But where is Frears taking us? Her language is straightforward, clear: present tense, few rhetorical flourishes. But so much is left unsaid. If a narrative is a way to make sense of the world, do Frears' films make sense? I mean, why would they? Like her paintings, there is something enigmatic about speaking so very clearly.

Blue Sleep | Video | Naomi Frears | 2020

There are other similarities between painting and film, most obviously in terms of scale. For the most part, Frears' paintings are modest in size and her films are hardly more than a few minutes each. Blue Sleep (2020) is just a tick over a minute. Paradoxically, as writer Simon Garfield has pointed out, the result is not the frenetic energy of a pop song or a television advert, but “slowness”. Just as a small painting encourages you to get right up close, a short film suggests you should pay attention to even the tiniest detail. For there is no fat in Frears' work. With narratives trimmed as tight as can be, there is always a before and an after that remain untold.

There are similarities too in terms of process. Frears works on numerous paintings at once, returning again and again to the same canvas over a period of several years. The same, more or less, is true of the films. In both media, there is an extended process of adding and removing material, bringing things together and editing them back again. Both painting and film-making involve processes of gathering, sorting, selecting, filtering and framing. Every work is made up of layers, but most of these layers are hardly visible. Often Frears tries out every possible permutation – keeping everything in flux as long as possible – before returning in the end to simplicity.

Goggs | Oil on Canvas | Naomi Frears | 2019
Naomi’s Studio | Photographed by John Hersey | 2020
Studio | In My Other Life |
Oil on Canvas | Naomi Frears | 2020

To work in this manner requires an archive of gathered materials, and all archives must be ordered somehow. An artist's studio is a familiar kind of archive: sketches and postcards, photographs and notes pinned up in loose arrangements; an open book; a half-worked canvas. But I wonder what the virtual equivalent looks like: a paint-spattered Dropbox account? Stacks of unprimed hard drives? “I'm the worst filer in the world,” says Frears – disorganised, she admits, but also afraid of loss. It's a surprisingly fertile combination: “I sometimes come across a cache. It's like discovering a seam – like a vein of copper – of a particular memory, a time, a sound, a place... I started filming gnats a while ago. There are gnats everywhere, hiding in folders, but I haven't found out what they have to say yet.”

This tangle of order and confusion is potentially vital. In a 2019 essay, Alice Spawls describes Frears' sea-facing St. Ives studio. But “[t]he sea and the seascape through her window aren't subjects of Naomi's painting,” she notes. The implication, I think, is of an independent (perverse?) attitude unswayed by the obvious beauty that has attracted so many artists over the centuries. Today, however, Frears is working on several new films and, in contrast to her paintings, the sea is a prominent presence, not for its beauty but for something else.

Men Falling | New film commission for Exeter Phoenix | Naomi Frears | 2021

Men Falling part 1 (2020) combines the artist's response to the death of her father from cancer in 1999 with a wealth of footage showing surfers falling into the sea. Men Falling part 2 (2020) tells of half-remembered moments from his final days against the rumble of the waves. “There are five main types of fall,” runs the text in part 1, in notable echo of that line from Ella. We watch as surfers fall forwards or sideways, jumping up or stepping off, one after the other in carefully synchronised rhythm. What forms is a typology of finality. The desire to keep everything open meets the necessity for categorisation and there must be a negotiation or maybe a battle. No sense without categories, right? To make sense of the falls is not only a metaphor.

I'm tempted to reach for Jacques Derrida, writing on the deaths of his closest friends: “Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde” (2003). Same, same, same, never the same. But nobody quotes Derrida any more. Instead I'd reach for Melissa McCarthy's strange little book, Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion (2019). It reminds me of Frears' concision and rigour and the way her work functions so lightly like multiple temporary gatherings of so much and so little. McCarthy borrows a phrase from Chris Marker's extraordinary film La Jetée (1962): “Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments.”. I'm not really sure what this means, but it chimes. It's the sorting I'm interested in, and the “nothing” that is doing it: in this case, Frears' moving image works – “strange little films of nothing,” she has called them. Frears' work keeps asking us what really matters: the big things (life, death...) or all the tiny little things. And how can we really know one from the other? There are three types of water, in the end, and five types of fall – and the lingering sad absurdity of trying to sort the world into sense.

The Importance of Sleeves | Video | Naomi Frears | 2021