In the beginning was the Word… or was it the image or the object that enabled communication for the antecedents of Homo erectus? In terms of the evolution, invention and development of human communication (through shared language systems), how were thoughts as exclusively non-material manifestations related to things (signs and symbols) in the world? A sign cannot be a signifier devoid of meaning but it takes many forms. What role does art have in a world full of increasingly reactionary, fixed views and the post-modern impulse to mix things up? David Bellingham’s ‘Driving School’ prompts these thoughts – these ruminations.
Curated by David Shrigley, an element of wit and absurdity – with a dash of idiosyncratic character – might have been expected. For Shrigley fans, ‘Driving School’ will not disappoint as Bellingham’s visual/text/object works challenge and coax the observer’s intellect and sense of humour alike. The work is both fun and droll.
That Shrigley chose an artist who is not so well known is refreshing too. The exhibition title suggests that the viewer will be attending some kind of compulsory educational experience and the press release prepared visitors by stating that:
“Driving School offers lessons in unlearning and relearning, undoing and redoing and unmaking and remaking. To unlearn something is to take it apart, to relearn it is to put it back together examined and refreshed.”
The works in ‘Driving School’, currently installed at Phoenix Brighton, pose many questions based on what is perceived as well as read. The newly refurbished gallery is transformed into a learning zone wherein the dynamic learning situation generates questioning from the viewer (the student), which the artwork (the teacher) facilitates. The installation (the lesson plan in action) of various works lets go of total control (didacticism) to allow for debate (welcoming the student voice). The goal here is not to obtain a diploma, but to carry on thinking and looking as reward in itself.
Of course, we know that the standardisation of the conventional driving school must be instructive, objective and specific, leading to fixed outcomes of shared, collective knowledge without room for modification of the rules. But this is an art exhibition and an implied post-academy visual arts curriculum asserts its strengths on antithesis and fluid thinking. All that is fixed, flows. Absurdity is celebrated where certainty and bafflement are equal partners for our binary thinking habits. Bellingham conjoins word, image and object as one. The viewer can take the works at face value or extrapolate at will. To varying degrees there is paradox in all of the works displayed, but all is concrete and tangible despite the conceptual framework that might define this visual field of enquiry.
As the viewer enters the exhibition the first work encountered is ‘MATTER IN MOTION’, a wall text/drawing. It might be a super-enlarged photocopy of a sophisticated doodle. The work (as image) is made from thousands of near identical marks. It’s more than a doodle of course. The work is planned for this specific wall space as the whole wall is filled as a singular composition. Initially, the white letter-forms stand out against the background. But do the letters depict negative space, the space between or behind forms, or are the letters the foregrounded forms? Furthermore, is the phrase an object of sorts? Are the three words no more than 14 letters? Or should the drawn linear elements (albeit just the one sort) constitute a pictorial image? But this is a picture, of sorts, formed as an installation-type artwork on a wall. We simultaneously ‘read’ the words as image. The placement of the letters suggests time and motion too as the letters could be forming or displacing and deconstructing the words. The message is fixed on the wall but the implication is one of movement as the mind reacts to the visual dynamics.
In ‘Driving School’ contradiction is an essential characteristic. The Hegelian interpretive method (thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis) enshrines contradiction as an essential model of thought and debate. But synthesis (in the form of these conceptual artworks) might remain consistently contradictory. For example, ‘A circle in the mind prompted by a circle on the wall’ prompts the chicken-egg conundrum – which came first? Is the ‘artwork’ in the viewer’s mind and on the wall simultaneously? Admittedly the art-object was on the wall before entering the gallery, but the viewer attends pre-programmed with the notion of a circle already formed in the mind. Where did the circle originate and is the idea of a circle innate? (And was it a perfect circle? Plato’s theory of forms/ideas tells us there is no such thing…)
If this is too serious and weighty some humour to lighten the mood is welcome. Many viewers smile on encountering a grouping of five apparent road signs. There’s ‘NOT MUCH’except ‘DIGRESSION DISTRACTION DIVERSION’in ‘A PLACE AMONG PLACES’and ‘A MOMENT AMONG MOMENTS’with ‘A SIGN AMONG SIGNS’. In poetic mode you can order the instructions in any order you wish and as the temporary road sign is a moveable object it might be permissible to engage physically with the work.
Or you can escape up a ladder into the roof space and beyond. For in the beginning was the Imagination…
Unit 3, ASC, Empson Street from 3-17 November 2018
Collage has a significant 20thcentury history. Inspired by Braque and Picasso, Kurt Schwitters typically utilised “used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps” and, long before re-cycling was a conservation matter, applied his alchemical process effectively. Henri Matisse utilised painted papers and cut out the shapes required for his decoupage that extended his exploration of painting, particularly in his latter years. In the era of the Abstract Expressionists, Robert Motherwell raised the medium of collage (and particularly the Gauloises packet) to an aesthetic height where it became conjoined with painting. With Duchampian whit, and challenging categorisations between painting and sculpture, Robert Rauschenberg produced a huge body of collage and assemblage works (aka ‘combines’) with explicit social and cultural content, introducing ironic reference to abstract painting and contemporaneous subject matter. Matisse aside, an underlying spirit of Dadaism and with a nod towards Arte Povera, a particular type of collage can still exploit a direct embracing of materials from the urban jungle.
Within the visuality of collage as material and process, which still has an aesthetic and fiscal purchase (i.e. material value), it appears evident from John Bunker’s ongoing project that, in the broadest context, collage engages with an interpretation of social reality that has more political and economic discomforts than might be desired. Crucially, this reading is best experienced from being in the presence of the work, which is both visually abstract and embodied in the material specificity of a re-constructive process. Like painting, in the flesh the collages possess a life force that is compromised in reproduction – rendering any notion of duplication as anything close to satisfactory, almost null and void.
One fascinating aspect of these new mixed media shaped collages (though the term ‘assemblage’ better categorises Bunker’s works as many of the parts are objects as much as surfaces) is that the base materials possess idiosyncrasies of substance and surface impossible to replicate on the ubiquitous screen. Materials and objects that had a previous life, used goods as it were, become fresh or new again as component parts of the subsequent artwork. So, in ‘Vilja’, one of twelve works presented in ‘Slam-Dunk’, items such as electrical cable, cardboard packaging or a printed poster are not those things anymore. Identity is reassigned to a very different functionality. Material hierarchy is certainly de-bunked.
In these works the deterioration of the physical conditions of found objects, street and studio detritus, are presented as if new and fresh; where for example, decomposition and fragmentation can be regarded as a primary state and not a proximate condition within a standard ontology of physical manifestations. So the various engineered metal components in ‘Tjádass’, one that may have functioned as part of a musical instrument, another as a sturdy wall fastening (replete with plastic rawl plug), survive destruction and redundancy in a form of re-incarnation. The connection with Schwitters’ synthesizing use of mixed media, which interchanged the material and the visual, is palpable in the ‘Slam-Dunk’ collages.
Twelve months on from Bunker’s last one-man show at Unit 3, the viewer is treated to these new works gathered together with quirky titles. For an Abcrit review for ‘Leave It’ in 2017, I had commented that, “I was reminded that collage is not a substitute for painting.” It was apparent that these collages were potent enough in themselves to stand alone from painting, albeit with similar characteristics – made for the wall; to be read by the eye across the surface, with various implications of spatial congress; shifting the visual interrogation from part to part; colours, shapes and surfaces refreshing the abstract mission; and prompting suggestions for personal interpretations on context or sufficing unadulterated visual pleasure.
‘Slam-Dunk (for Dennis)’, the largest work in the show that filled a whole wall, is something of a punk-mural as many of the various components are torn by hand, burnt and dishevelled. Though discarded, rejected and roughed up, the parts are now rescued and revived. But are the painted parts in ‘Slam-Dunk (For Dennis)’, a little disingenuous if they have been made to be unique collage components? Perhaps they are intended as simulacra of wastage from the production of other paintings/collages? Intermixed with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, including found print, nylon string, fragments of plywood and plastic and cotton material of unknown origin, the inclusion of paint (industrial and artists’ quality?) might reference Rauschenberg’s expressionist painterly gestures – only now the paint might be a spill or composed bluntly from a cleaning of the brush, rather than a personalised action from the hand of a ‘master’.
All of the other works are much smaller (approximating 50 x 60cm each) and you can touch them with your eyes by standing close-to. Keeping your hands to yourself increases the visceral pleasure and tactile frisson of so many moving parts. Though nothing actually moves, except the viewer. Take, for example, ‘Fun Bobby’, which might suggest two dancers in full swing connected by a flash of red feather and white bunting. A wriggling line, with few breaks, starts with a ring at bottom centre, heads north-west into a patchwork maze then bridges east to a counterpart form that is characterised by a figure of eight, and a diamond framework placed over a black disc, overlapped in part by a second little shanty town of patches.
What is so impressive about the works in ‘Slam-Dunk’ is not only the inherent particularity of the stuff of the collages, but the selection and arrangement within the frameless compositions – the choreography as such. As with all of the works on show, there is visual dynamism in every composition. Bunker’s ‘expanded field’ of collage removes the omnipresence of the rectangle and eliminates the edge that preoccupies some abstract practitioners. The various colour-shapes echo spatial placements, propose latent moveability; physically conjoin, meander, occlude and reveal the specific abstract qualities that are somehow vital and fecund in an organic phraseology of materiality. Disjuncture is carefully balanced with ‘just rightness’, whilst visual rhythms unlock the still nature of the fixed parts and the condition of the arrangements are inherently organic, playing with a shift from the visual to the material and vice versa.
As installation, the wall behind each work in the gallery space, and the quality of light (particularly from the spotlights) that enhance low relief in millimetres, activates the collages, especially if the viewer approaches at close quarters. As is typical of Bunker’s collages, there is a painterly aesthetic at work in an agile distribution and handling of the materials. The works have edged towards resolution into an abstract condition that may well emulate painting, but still maintains the independence of collage in the same way that print is both independent of, but inextricably related to painting.
As medium and process, we might still debate the status of collage as an offshoot of painting (and sculpture in the form of assemblage), or as an independent medium. Current artspeak might label the kind of collage that John Bunker makes as ‘expanded field’ of painting. His work is certainly ‘painterly’ and I sometimes wonder what a new series of paintings would look like – although I would imagine that the canvas would simply get in the way.
In Bunker’s press statement for ‘Slam-Dunk’ a revived declaration from three years ago reiterates his contention that, “Collage allows me to constantly test the limits of what an abstract painting can be. I hope to find something like a new hybrid visual grammar in these clashes of matter and forms.”
This notion of hybridity is undeniable. So, is collage eternally bound to painting? The kind that Bunker cajoles and constructs from the detritus of the contemporary situation may well place his works in a broader societal context. Perhaps the medium is the message after all, especially if the collages predominantly employ the debris of the urban, suggesting a dystopian reading in its literal, material content. But if the various fragments appear to be resurrected from the waste bin or the gutter – places of superfluous cut-offs, rejection and abandon – the underlying message is a positive and uplifting one. For there is also visual refinement and elegance on display here. The viewer might also embrace the tangible qualities and materiality of the forms in Bunker’s collages in the spirit of Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese philosophy of beauty in imperfection, where the transient and imperfect is revered.
A gallery above a council library seems an unlikely place to see an exhibition of prints by one of the most pre-eminent of British abstract painters. But Peter Riley, curator of the Young Gallery in Salisbury, has arranged an exhibition that constitutes the most comprehensive retrospective of Ian McKeever’s etchings, lithographs and woodcuts to date. All that were missing from the print category were his silver-gelatin photographic works, although two polymer gravure prints, which involve a photo-mechanical process, from ‘Eagduru’ (2015) were displayed.
Followers of McKeever’s career will know that, as with his various drawing and gouache series, the print output has been consistent in relation to his painting. The prints might be (mis)understood as extensions or preliminary exercises between painting periods, but the print editions stand alone too, forming coherent and independent bodies of work from well-defined periods of production. Not that the prints are necessarily unrelated to the paintings for the essential imagery of the prints are connected with the paintings in terms of sustained and evolving investigations into the visual dynamics of line, form and ‘abstract’, visual impact. So, if you love the paintings for their visceral and emotional effect, for prompting a meditative, slow pace of looking, and for following an authentic and active journey into a dialectically nuanced abstraction, the range of works in this exhibition will not disappoint.
The Young Gallery is divided into three rooms, and ‘Weight & Measure’ amply fills Galleries 1 and 2. Ideally the whole selection of prints would be distributed in one space to enable a manageable overview, but the extra wall space provided by Gallery 2 allowed for the rare showing of the monumental ‘Hartgrove Woodcut Monoprints’ made in 1994 with Hugh Stoneman. Printed on paper as strong as card (the sheets were originally reserved for Jim Dine), the four prints selected were pinned in line on one stretch of wall, unframed and benefitting from not having the glossy sheen of glass that can make viewing (and photographing) difficult, overlaying the surface.
The prints were made (or is manufactured a better term?) by cutting biomorphic, net-like shapes out of industrial plywood with a jigsaw. Coated with ink, the huge plates of thick laminate were passed through an etching press. The whole process engages a practicality of method and procedure, and an active awareness of the relationship between materials (wood, ink, paper) and process (cutting, placing, pressing), which is very much in keeping with McKeever’s association of the visual with the bodily and the corporeal. Most importantly, the combination of materials and processes leads to, and is lead by, an abstract visual aesthetic which transforms the medium and methodology into potent end results.
Even without a reflective layer, the black-on-black combination of printed ink impressions for ‘Woodcut Monoprint No.8’ required the viewer to adjust to a 45° viewpoint to make out the double layer of printing. This subtlety of surface, of ink and paper combining with the overall impact of a portcullis-like form fixed to the dark, flat plane not only invited an obligation to both stand back to take in and experience the pictorial space, but also to approach the picture surface as an immersive field to be visually traversed at close quarters. Smaller prints can function as objects one can pick up or leaf through in a portfolio, but these giant monoprints compel the whole body to engage, not just the eye and hand, as an architectural sense of edifice and entry might pull one in to its ‘space’. Conversely, the size of the works make the viewer more physically aware of height and width; density and vacuum; depth and surface. These palpable modalities are as just as consequential as intellectualised visual perception and abstract cognitive faculties. Or to put it more simply, the physical is the visual and the visual is physical.
The significant difference between printmaking and painting for McKeever lies in the experience of making the prints and the real time experience required for production. In the exhibition leaflet, quoting from his 2013 essay on Gunter Damisch, McKeever explains:
“To make prints (…) is to feel the weight and pressure of the moment. For the printed image is formed under pressure and is held in the moment. It is this difference of time, weight and feel which attracts so many painters to make prints. Providing as it does, precious respite from the incessant incertitude of paintings’ often meandering time.” [i]
Another characteristic of McKeever’s vocation as a painter/printmaker has been his interest in, and engagement with, the written word. In the same gallery space as the Woodcut Monoprints, ‘that which appears’ (1993), which generated 22 woodcut prints to go alongside, around and be placed in relation to a sequence of 80 poems by Thomas A. Clark, was represented by 15 of the 32 double page spreads. This is a particular treat as The Paragon Press produced just 50 numbered copies of the publication and so they are unlikely to be seen in public.
Responding to Clark’s poems in this publication in Modern Painters magazine in 1994, the author Iain Sinclair commented: “He delights, as does McKeever, in being at a distance, taking in the whole spread, horizon to horizon, and right up against the lichen on the granite: in the same instant.” [ii]
This sense of the expansive and the more confined was demonstrated by putting these very different sets of prints together making for a fascinating juxtaposition. Turning away from the larger ‘Woodcut Monoprints’ in the room, the black graphical forms of ‘that which appears’ are much reduced in size, transforming sheets of paper into pages, taking the viewer into the text for a more intimate and cerebral experience. On one such page we read: “in a wide / darkness / the touch / of rain”. In the imagination, small droplets of water might spatter and impress upon the skin. But the darkness is a shadow form, in an actual but poetic space on the page. The reader can relate the text to the images or vice-versa, for these are not illustrations to merely visualise the poem. Both elements are constituted as ink on paper and as disparate but related manifestations of language/sign made ready to be read, and interpreted, as one is able or prepared for – in a format that becomes personal and intimate.
The same could be said for McKeever’s visual explorations throughout his engagement with printmaking (his first prints, lithographs, were made in 1984) – where conjoined qualities, such as weight and measure, are factors of process and materiality that result in a particular visual and tactile consummation. The compulsive moods of light and dark, flow and stillness, essence and particularity are implicit, to varying degrees in the prints. From series to series, McKeever repeats, develops, lets go and introduces new features.
Moving into the larger Gallery 1, six or more print series were amply represented in part or whole and demonstrated this explorative journey. This included all ten ‘Colour Etchings’ (1996), works that were first shown at the Alan Cristea Gallery in Cork Street in 1997. The ‘Colour Etchings’ wall was as impressive and almost as impactful as the ‘Woodcut Monoprints’ already discussed, though more closely configured into two rows, one above the other, forming a larger rectangle. But these are black and white images. In the catalogue for the Cristea show McKeever is quoted by Pat Gilmour as explaining the reference to colour, “to feel a form’s aura, to make it luminous.” [iii]
That luminosity should replace or equate with colour is fascinating. On a simple level, luminosity means brightness but we know that with the right conditions light refracts into colour. Luminosity could also be considered as a lack of greyness – or darker tones. With varying degrees of contrast, McKeever creates grey tones from the combination of black ink on white paper to create and enable luminosity in the imagery. From constructing sometimes strong contrasts of black and white, with wiry grids and an inner rectangle with arms on each of the four corners of this shield-like form, the resultant ambient luminosity the aura is generated and appears within and around the proportionately large central motif.
On the two adjoining walls in six frames were the colophon (a kind of title page) and five painterly ‘Sentinel’ (2005) lithographic prints, opposite five of the original nine etchings from ‘Between Space and Time’ (1998-99). The latter is a potentially significant series in that colour content appears as prominent as line, tone and form – although one of the two red prints and the orange print were not included here. This series was made in close proximity to the oil and acrylic ‘Assumptio’ canvases (just before and after starting the paintings, it would appear) and the ‘Pause’ gouache on paper series constituted the third and final stage of this cycle. In an interview with Jill Lloyd, in another classic Cristea Gallery catalogue for a show in 2000, the artist confirms the prints as a very direct forerunner to the paintings:
“Things are thrown up in the printmaking which allow me a much more direct access back into paintings and to taking them further than I could see by looking at the paintings themselves. It’s very symbiotic in that sense. For me printmaking has become invaluable as a counterpoint to the paintings.” [iv]
The prints were produced with Hugh Stoneman in Penzance, which would have necessitated a trip away from the painting studio in Dorset. This geographical remove presumably helps to create some degree of separation of procedure, although the psychic mindset for the whole two-year endeavour was as cohesive as the range of works produced.
‘Sentinel’, as the title implies, made for a commanding series of lithographs to confront the viewer, but any assertiveness was softened by the impact of the round cornered stone with the fine grain, mouldmade 270g BFK Rives paper. These prints cleverly delivered both subtlety and contrast of tone with imagery returned to and developed later on in ‘Assembly Etchings’ and ‘Six from Twelve’. So, although complete in itself, in retrospect ‘Sentinel’ is a taster of things to come.
The net-like weaves of organic structure in ‘Between Space and Time’ are also apparent in ‘Six from Twelve’ (2009), printed from three traditional lithographic stones, to make a set of six. The ‘Six from Twelve’ prints are quite pale if viewed from a distance and are somewhat problematic seen behind glass. But in close proximity the nets of grey strands, implicit gateways, and loose and fragile liminal doorways are as compelling as in any other series. Vertical buffers, in some instances displaced within the rectangular format, might represent form dissolving or becoming. These were the prints that I thought were not done justice by a typical exhibition wall display as they need more time for viewing, and their own unencumbered space, for the viewer to assimilate more adequately. The significance of ‘Six from Twelve’ is surely worth further investigation as they lead to the ‘Twelve Standing’ series of painting, where in a contrasting state, spaces become claustrophobic and black, red and white dominate. It might be that McKeever is still in the ‘Six from Twelve’ zone, as the painting series ‘Three’ (2013-2014) and ‘Portrait of a Woman’ (2014-2015) owe something to the lithographs, which indicates an ongoing presence originated in the prints.
Contrariwise, an adjacent wall displaying all five of the ‘Assembly Etchings’ (2007) which are characterised by bubble-like forms and overlapping discs, extend rather than pre-figure the ‘Temple Paintings’ (2004-2006) en route to the ‘Assembly Paintings’ (2006-2008). The print in McKeever’s oeuvre is something more than a substitute for painting. Certainly one cannot divorce the prints from the paintings totally and ‘Weight & Measure’ confirms the symbiotic and collusive relationship between all of McKeever’s various bodies of work.
In the last section of the exhibition another image/text series confirms McKeever’s interest in this literary art form. Some 24 years on from the woodcut and text combinations of ‘that which appears’, the series of lithographs, entitled ‘The Measure’ (2017), made in response to a sequence of poems by the American poet Peter Levitt, are displayed alongside the ‘Henge’ lithographs. These prints were also produced far from home in the Faroe Islands, which again facilitates a way of standing back, positively removed, from the central preoccupation with painting in the studio.
A poem from ‘Stones of the Sky’ by Pablo Neruda was also translated for ‘The Measure’ sequence. The Neruda poem ends: “Before wind / stone was there, / before man and dawn: / Its first movement / the first movement / of the river.”
Here the juxtaposition of solid, seemingly immovable stone with the flow of water (or maybe ink for the printmaker and paint for the painter?) echoes visual qualities and tropes in McKeever’s work. The essentially flat and monochromatic colours (typically black, red and green) function as curtains or moveable sections in the recent prints which segue into ‘Henge’ (2017), a series of lithographs that follow paintings of a similar diptych format and, superficially at least, a colourfield/minimalist/abstract theme that reminded me of McKeever’s interest in Barnet Newman. ‘Henge’ also appears to have links to ‘Hours of Darkness, Hours of Light’, which demonstrates a shifting from one body of work to another where processes and media (including paper, canvas and wood as variable surfaces to work on with ink, paint or photographs) promises and prompts in a varying, ever-changing, morphology. Despite echoes and repetitions, the combinations can only increase the possibilities for more cycles of work in the various media and the importance of printmaking is duly espoused by ‘Weight and Measure’.
How do McKeever’s prints relate to his particular take on abstraction? All of this work looks abstract enough, from any stage of his career. Typically it appears to reference or be fed by personal (though not autobiographical) experience. In a concrete, material sense, whether we bare in mind his landscape references from the early days or from the ongoing allusions to the body in all manner of discussions about his paintings, a phenomenological framework appears pertinent. Not being well read on Husserl, Heidegger et al I now enter dangerous ground of course and I can only direct you to Wikipedia for a way into this area of philosophical theory and speculation. [v]
In the meantime we could rely on McKeever’s own explanations for his, and other’s, work. Returning to his essay on Damisch, he says of his printmaking:
“Perhaps the solution is not to look at the work as image-picture as such, but instead as evocations of thought or of simply manifestations of being in the world; as states of being.” [vi]
And, in his interview with Jill Lloyd, also referenced earlier, McKeever says:
“In a way I would see it as being a kind of post-abstract figuration. It is as if I’m trying to sense an image that is on the other side of abstraction and moving away from the abstract rather than towards it. I try to find a point where the prototype of this post-abstract figuration can be sensed lurking, ghosting. Where it’s suggesting a figurative edge, an edge of recognition.” [vii]
On one level ‘Weight & Measure’ provided an opportunity to look back at a quarter of a century of printmaking practice. To truly weigh up and measure McKeever’s various printmaking projects in relation to his painting the prints will ideally be shown again alongside his paintings in the future. For a debate, discussion and understanding of the continued development of abstract art we shall also have to take on board notions of post-abstraction figuration too.
Unit 9, 15 Lincoln Cottages, Brighton, BN2 9UJ (28 July – 3 August 2018)
Art galleries are constituted in various formats and serve different purposes for cultural and economic reasons. The, sometimes fleeting, artists’ run space can both compliment and challenge the major institutions and the commercial gallery system as a showcase for contemporary art. As reputations develop and a degree of permanence and visitor expectation is established, a day-trip to the London galleries could well take in visits to ‘alternative venues’ such as Bermondsey and Cell Project Spaces in addition to the established galleries. In Brighton we still miss the Creative Arts Centre (originally called Grey Area – founded by Daniel Pryde-Jarman and Alice White) just off the Queens Road. Typically, as non-profit organisations, such venues might be few and far between. But given the significant number of artists living in Brighton and Hove it’s a little surprising that more of these initiatives have not yet developed in the city.
But just 15 minutes walk from Phoenix– fast becoming Brighton’s premier contemporary space alongside Fabrica– Niagara Falls Projects presents James William Murray & Alexander Glass: ideal-i. The fifth exhibition in less than two years, regular visitors will have witnessed an evolving space that now has a new roof (hence the name of the venue). Founded by James W. Murray and Martin Seeds, their policy is to present exhibitions focussed on solo and two person projects with early career artists.
The term ‘project’ is one that many an (ex) art student will rejoice or recoil over. Arguably, fine art projects are more open-ended than their design lead counterparts as the end product might still suspend judgements over notions of full realisation. Another way to understand any implied contradiction is that a body of work might be finished, but its success is constituted in opening up yet more potential for further development. In the studio, project or headspace (all are interchangeable), questions are asked by a combination of thoughts, materials and processes. Solutions are starting points for further investigation; end results are constituted in form and material and, later, in the response (often private) of the viewer and artist alike.
For example: Murray’s ‘Failed Circle’ (2015-18) sculpture of steel and gold leaf was once contrived from referencing the circle of Leonardo’s, ‘L’Uomo Vitruviano’ (Vitruvian Man) drawing. Now the piece is sub-divided into four parts (and displayed here in two pairs). The two sculptures are placed outside of the building with other works from the show. ‘Failed Circle’ still has the potential to reassemble or to fragment yet further – and whether this happens or not, the viewer can ponder over the possibilities. Furthermore, notions of failure could be applied to the subject of the sculpture, or more pertinently, to challenging an ideal notion of the geometric proportions of the human figure (notably, in this instance, the male). This questioning of the ideal permeates, and conceptualises, the whole show. As the exhibition statement explains:
“Departing from Lacan’s psychoanalytical concept of the ‘mirror stage’, ideal-i brings together two artist’s unique approaches to questions of desire, fragmentation, and projections of the idealised self-image.”
This notion of the ‘self’ as questionable and misjudged has been inherent in what we call ‘fine art’ for so long that we might take it for granted. The self-portrait (Rembrandt, van Gogh and Picasso have achieved iconic status in this regard) is a perennial subject that every viewer can relate to at any and every stage of life. Gazing at oneself in the mirror (or via the ’selfie’) is a universal experience that has its origins and repercussions for a sense of ‘self’ and personal identity. So, with the French philosopher Lacan in mind, and his concept of the Mirror Stage, the objectification of the self as an identity constructed from others (e.g. parents and, ultimately, society), Alexander Glass’, ‘Reaching’ (2018), a hand print in a blue pool of epoxy resin, certainly shifted the focus from the material to the psychological. This work, minimal in nature, is a trigger. The original mirror is the pool of water that reflects an individual’s image – especially the face if the gaze approaches the surface of the water and the rest of the body and other people and surrounding objects leave the frame of reference. One might place a hand in the water to touch the image and realise it lacks solidity and is immediately fragmented and apparently dispersed.
The exhibition catalogue also presents a quotation from Ovid’s, Metamorphoses:
“He fell in love with a bodiless dream, a shadow mistaken for substance. He gazed at himself in amazement, limbs and expression as still as a statue of Parian marble.”
As if to contradict this quotation, Murray’s ‘Untitled (Agamemnon & Argynnus) i’ and ‘Untitled (Bobby & River)’ (both 2018), framed and wall mounted graphite surfaces (applied to Carrara marble and beech wood, respectively) imply surfaces that should/might reflect. But all essentially absorb light, only reflecting a monochrome sheen of light that summarises rather than particularises surrounding surfaces or the gaze of a person/observer. The viewer is left to reflect upon a simple, minimalist geometry that, I suspect, represents love and friendship.
Murray’s,‘Untitled’ (2018), presenting a paraffin wax handprint on canvas that has the proportions of a head and the vertical format rectangle of a bathroom mirror, also suggests the pre-historic, ritualistic, handprint on a cave wall (which, interestingly may have been made by women). Again, the image is bodiless although recording the surface of things. The weave of the cotton duck has its own origins in craft and the handmade (albeit via the technology of the loom).
All of the works maintain a presence that cannot be ignored. For example, although diminutive in size, Glass’s ‘Death of Achilles’ (2018), an acrylic and wood construction smaller than A4, seems to offer a private conversation to the viewer. The size of the piece makes it suitable to be hand held and the small wall-mounted plinth on which it is presented seems to offer up the image as if it were on a mantelpiece in the home. Carefully etched images of a towel hanging from an implied wall and a fallen (naked) Achilles combine and invite interpretation. The figure of Achilles is drawn (etched) carefully, although the immediate and unchangeable nature of the medium and the process forbids change and amendment that drawing on paper would more freely allow to create a more sensuous image of the body.
A collaborative piece from Glass and Murray, ‘Broken Bits of Boy’ (2018), presents three fragments of paraffin wax torso laid out on a pillow with copper leaf. The sculpture is laid on the floor, rather than a conventional plinth, which might reference the bedroom floor and not the art gallery environment. Along with, ‘Stood’(2017) a silver-leaf embellished bathmat, the everyday and the domestic stage is a strong/forceful feature of the exhibition.
But a broader social and generic public space (though confined to the male changing room with its homo-erotic implications) is implied by ‘Hang by the Pool (speedo #2)’ (2018), a bronze sculpture of Speedoswimming trunks. Another implication is one of nakedness, and the limpidity of the work could imply a more sexual connotation and humorous contradiction.
A physical notion of the self as portrait/facemask is explored in Glass’ ‘Cleanse & Repeat’ (2018) and ‘Peel & Relax’ (2018). Before making the connection with cleansing, peel-off, cucumber facemasks, I was pondering, by association, Greek theatre tragedy and comedy acting masks. The combined potentiality of the theatre of the everyday with classical, perhaps collective, memories and origins points to the inherent possibilities of reactions that could be activated or provoked by this and the other works in ideal-i. The exhibition is marked by a persistent visual poetics that combines images, found objects, material juxtaposition and ideas. The project is placed with a particular sexual orientation in mind but connects on a humanistic level nonetheless.
It’s worth mentioning that a limited edition of five ‘Peel & Relax’ works by Glass are offered for sale for just £100 to support future exhibitions at this venue. Ideally, Niagara Falls Projects will be with us for many more years and will help to encourage other small collectives and individuals to share contemporary practice in venues that are not bound or defined by strictly commercial values. This is a project in itself, of course.
After winning the Turner Prize in 2006 and providing the stand-out work in ‘Painting Now: five contemporary artists’ at Tate Britain in 2013-14, it has been interesting to see a presentation of Tomma Abts’ paintings from 2002-2018. The current exhibition at Serpentine Sackler Gallery has attracted ample media coverage and Adrian Searle, writing for the Guardian, has waxed lyrical in his four star review: ‘Like fans in the hands of animated Andalucíans’. Fellow Guardian critic, Laura Cumming, goes one better and gives the show five stars. Neither critic labels the work ‘abstract’ – although Cumming introduces the term with a denial of sorts when she concludes that, “…with metaphor comes a kind of lyrical philosophy, to the effect that no painting seen or made by human beings can ever be wholly abstract.”
But are these abstract paintings? They might appear to be so at first glance. But what category of the abstract are we viewing? Hard edge, geometric shapes of planar colour-forms, distinctively characterised by purposely limited but expertly rendered colour palettes abound that could have antecedents from Kandinsky to Bridget Riley. But there are perspectival, trompe-l’œil elements too. Not only indicated by folded forms and shadows cast by ostensibly unidentifiable abstract structures, but figure/ground relationships create definite illusions of spatiality. A sense of voids into which the viewer might be able to place a hand between forms, or know that there are extensions to these constructs occluded by other structures and facades, suggests the still-life genre. If these are figurative images, we are perhaps looking at forms we have not seen before – or at least not noticed in our immediate environment.
The subject matter of Abts’ paintings may not be obvious and whether we read or understand these enigmatic images as figurative or abstract is clearly open to interpretation. Reading available literature appears necessary and is understandable. Explanation and elucidation helps to unlock barriers to understanding apparently abstract, non-figurative works – even if a counter-argument to trust one’s own eyes and personal interpretation is tempting. Ideally, one should visit the exhibition and buy the amply illustrated catalogue or download the press pack that includes an essay by art-historian Kate Nesin. Alternatively, pick up a bargain priced copy of the exhibition booklet for a pound. Lizzie Carey-Thomas’ informative introduction sets the scene perfectly. With a little history and quotations from the artist she describes the practicalities of Abts’ production lucidly and adds a curator’s note that the artist had full control over selection and arrangement of the works for the show. By now you could also have read Luke Elwes’ recent Instantloveland article, ‘How to write about Tomma Abts?’ Accounting for many and various interpretations and explanations of Abt’s paintings, the article’s diverse references will set the reader off on a journey that will expand how the viewer might choose to frame the works. Elwes’ final sentence, “Their origins are obscure, and their forms are strange: such is the lure of the uncanny”, had me considering that fascinating term at the end. The ‘uncanny’ could well be applied to Abts’ imagery whether we see the works as abstract or not. There is a familiarity about the forms and configurations, although anything unsettling is subtle and notions of the abject might be a step too far. Maybe there’s a quirky Kafkaesquesense of never quite arriving at a final interpretation – but minus any surreal horror or underlying commentary on institutionalised society. Although an anonymous atmosphere in the work sneakily underlies the initially pleasantly colourful and pristine imagery. Emotions are checked by a tightly controlled application of paint.
On my initial arrival (I returned later for the curator’s talk), an unexpected source of commentary was gleaned from listening to a language teacher who was taking a small group of her students around the show. Her lesson plan was clearly geared towards terminology, and considering these canvases as abstract paintings enabled a focus on formal and descriptive terms that may have been complicated by overtly figurative works. Defining visual forms and its specific multi-lingual language from the written and spoken word made for a fascinating discourse that the students handled really well. All forms of language make connections and create communities, for language is ultimately social in its constructive and relational purpose.
“If you can define it, it’s not abstract…. Your minds are set for classical art… What’s the story?” Looking at ‘Schwiddo’ (2018) the tutor-cum-guide referenced associations that a viewer might already have. Chopsticks and two bowls were suggested, as the participants had shared a meal earlier. (Or was it a record player, raffia mats – or an aerial view of mown grass?) I wondered – is painting a class of fiction? But whatever the implied narrative, or the opinions of others, the viewer is obliged to use their eyes too – for this is an absolutely visual body of work that reminded me of Patrick Heron’s maxim when he explained that, “Colour is both the subject and the means; the form and the content; the image and the meaning, in my paintings today.” Invoking Heron, who made quick decisions for his imagery after long hours of premeditation, followed by purist exactitude in application and adroit decision-making, could be a long shot. But equally, colour is inseparable from Abts’ forms, albeit with tonal rendering that Heron would have rejected.
I also recalled the work of Helene Appel and Peter Dreher. They are not to be categorised as ‘colourists’ (and the Germanic connection is superficial), but the ability to apply paint with craft-like precision over extended periods of time, and to be able to modulate colour without resorting to brashness or garishness are cohesive factors in their disparate practices. We might also wonder about the personality of the maker of these paintings because they are obviously handmade and cannot be confused with the printed or the digital. Quietly meditative, with virtues of patience and determination to complete tasks expertly, might befit all of these painters.
At the Serpentine the curation is simple and Abts has resisted the temptation to fill every available square metre with a canvas. (She even left some drawings out that were originally to be included.) Abts’ expert ‘eye’ for spatial distribution and visual calibration is subtly manifested in the slightly different measurements of intervals (about 2 to 3 metres) between each painting and might be as important as the sub-divisions of space within the various compositions. Add the illusionism of overlaps, curves and shadows to the tastefully coloured Euclidian, architectonic still-life-type spacescapes and the scope for a non-organic visual aesthetics opens up endless, exponential possibilities.
The work is not arranged chronologically but visitors were mostly starting at work no.1 – ‘Oeje’ (2016) – and finishing 25 canvases later at ‘II’ (2018), circumscribing the empty central gunpowder storerooms in a clock-wise journey of stops and starts. There is so much diversity – you can’t get bored with this show. The work is immaculately produced – a trademark feature of Abts’ literally painstaking working process. If you want variety there’s nothing to gripe about as there is variation and all content is clear and well defined. The images have an air of neutrality, but not in a disinterested or impartial sense. There is a visual concreteness about what is detected within Abts’ compositions and a geometric sense of substance and tangibility about her environments that are not mini-worlds, but could be portions or segments of something/somewhere bigger. Meaningfully social and expansive, rather than restricted to the closed world of the studio (just as Georges Braque avoided the hermetic dangers of the atelier by making paintings that are still visually alive), intimacy still is embodied in these paintings. My hunch is that the fictive spaces and forms are shared and communal. There is a familiarity implied by the various forms and spaces. For example, in ‘Fimme’ (2013) there is a packaging or greetings card allusion (probably unintended); and in ‘Feke’ (2013), a modernist architectural vibe might be referenced (but isn’t). The various infrastructures are not anonymous or obscure. But I can’t quite place them.
The structural geometry that pervades Abts’ imagery might be considered a form of Rorschach inkblot, testing the viewer’s imaginative capabilities. But the variable content is embedded in and referencing the designed and constructed world of the collective-conscious, rather than the liquid submergence of the inner mind. Throughout the work the various environs, marked by simply coloured interstices and generally flat but concrete structures: straight and curved edges; overlapping and broken forms; zigzags or graceful rhythms. These characteristics of content are acquired and fabricated intuitively from a state of flux, of forming and deconstructing over months or even years in the artist’s daily painting process. What fills and constructs our personal and communal psyches? As viewers, participants in much the same geographic, cultural and social spaces as Abts, mental and memory models of the built environment, containing patterns and paradigms, are both physically extended around and, psychologically, inside of us. Under certain conditions, barriers dissolve, merging the actual and the metaphysical – is this the implicit story? Form and content, however mysterious or hidden in plain sight, is resolved. The contradiction is strangely, and uncannily, satisfying.
Hitting The Streets was a task set for the Foundation Diploma students from Northbrook Met (University Centre, Worthing) on a research visit to Brighton (May 2018). This also provided an opportunity for my own response to the theme.