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There is a paradoxical logic to many of Francesca Mollett’s paintings. The simpler they appear, the stranger they seem; the less recognisable they look, the more familiar they feel. “I’m trying to get close to the effect of something, and in the attempt to get close, it starts to escape a bit,” the London-based artist says of her slippery, impressionistic work—a growing favourite among curators and collectors alike. “That’s the tension where something interesting happens in the painting, and something else starts to emerge.”

This tension is all over Corso (until 22 June), the 32-year-old’s new solo show at Grimm gallery in New York. The title is taken from an Italian word with multiple meanings: “street”, “stream” or—when paired with prepositions such as “in”—“in progress”. All definitions apply inside, where Mollett’s paintings ride a riptide between representation and abstraction. Some, like the twilit riverside scene Ravel (2023), hew closer to the former; others, like the messy, gestural Murmur (2023), lean toward the latter. Ping-ponging between these two competing currents, her work can skew a little uncanny—less either/or, more neither/nor. A first pass through the gallery may leave viewers wondering: what kind of painter does she most want to be?

Ravel (2023), depicting a riverside scene, is one of Mollett’s more representational works

“I’m working out how I feel about what I want to do,” Mollett tells The Art Newspaper. It is an unexpected admission for an ascendant artist having her first New York solo show. But the uncertainty is hardly a sign that she is unfit for the moment. It is more an expression of the quality that has propelled her to this point: her insistence on the mystery of her craft. Mollett’s paintings are mutable and multivalent, endlessly interpretable, impossible to pin down and always evolving. For this artist, every piece is “in corso”, even when it is done.

It’s like I’m trying to paint the painting trying to come through rather than the subject matter

Most of Mollett’s compositions are inspired by momentary alignments of texture and light observed outside the studio—a wink of the sun in a puddle, the undulating waves of an old stone path—that, to her eye, “already look like a painting”. But to translate these memories into compositions is to disarticulate them. After an initial charcoal sketch and some light layers of paint, then several months’ worth of additions and tweaks, the fleeting scenes that spawned the works morph into something else entirely. At some point, “‘it’s almost like I’m painting the painting itself emerging”, she says. “Like I’m trying to paint the painting trying to come through rather than the subject matter.”

Mollett’s meticulousness occasionally leaves her working until the last minute. At least that was the case for Corso, says Jorg Grimm, the founder and co-owner of the gallery. “She pulled one painting at the 25th hour because it just didn’t work. For her, it’s really important that a painting has a right to exist in the world.”

Grimm’s fairytale

The Dutch dealer was introduced to Mollett in 2022, when three of her paintings were included in a group show at his New York space. The artist was just two years removed from completing her MFA at the Royal College of Art and coming off solo exhibitions at Informality Gallery in London and Baert Gallery in Los Angeles. “She came over for the installation and opening, and we decided to work together on the spot,” Grimm says.

One year later, the gallery mounted Halves, an exhibition of new work by the artist at its Amsterdam location. The presentation promptly sold out. “Right away, when we started showing her, the response was phenomenal,” Grimm says. Other dealers are believers, too; the ascendant San Francisco-headquartered Micki Meng gallery also shows Mollett, and her work has been featured in recent group exhibitions at Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset location and the buzzy London gallery Ginny on Frederick.

The prices for the large-scale paintings in Mollett’s 2023 solo at Grimm were between $15,000 and $20,000 each. In Corso, works of the same size are listed around $65,000 to $70,000 apiece. The increase can be viewed as both large and small—an indication of the artist’s rapidly growing success and her dealer’s efforts to moderate the market building around her, despite levels of demand that could easily justify higher price tags.

Hammer highs

Since December 2022, nine of Mollett’s works have appeared at auction, according to the Artnet Price Database. (None was sold by Grimm’s gallery, he notes.) All but one surpassed the upper end of their respective presale estimates after fees, with five lots topping that target by at least 300%. At a Phillips 20th-century and contemporary art evening sale in London last October, Mollett’s jittery Two Thistles (2021) set her record at £254,000 (with fees)—more than seven times its £35,000 high estimate.

Mollett’s art, and the figures it has fetched under the hammer, situate her among a loose cohort of young London-based painters—many of them women, such as Jadé Fadojutimi, Pam Evelyn and Flora Yukhnovich—whose fresh takes on abstraction have reinvigorated a market dried-out by figuration fatigue. Interest in these artists’ work has turned them into overnight market darlings, as well as targets of speculation.

“I feel like we’ve been inundated over the last five or six years with so much representational portraiture. Abstraction—fresh abstraction—touches a nerve for me,” says collector Howard Rachofsky, the founder of the Warehouse project space in Dallas, which will mount a solo show of Mollett’s work in the spring of 2025. Rachofsky purchased one of the artist’s large-scale paintings from Grimm in 2022, then another the following year, and he is hoping to add a third soon. “Whatever the so-called ‘It’ factor is, for me, she seems to have it,” he says.

Rachofsky is one of around 70 names on a waitlist to buy the new works in Corso. To filter the queue, Grimm has put his own spin on the “buy one, give one” (Bogo) strategy deployed by some other dealers representing fast-rising talents in recent years. Targeting collectors with connections to museums that have also expressed interest in Mollett’s work, he offers them a deal to buy one of her paintings now, on condition that they pledge to help fund an institutional acquisition later on. These requests are “delicate”, he says, but the response so far has been anything but.

“We’re in the great position to choose the collections for her work,” Grimm says. “And we do so with the aim of maximising visibility for the long term.”

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