Tomma Abts @ greengrassi, London, April 28 – June 18, 2016.

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Installation view, Tomma Abts, Greengrassi, London, 2016.

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

Painters tend to approach the work of other painters in a matter of fact way. When they walk around a show they might go straight to the side of a canvas to scrutinize how the artist dealt with the edges, or perhaps contort themselves into unnatural positions to verify whether the surface reflects the gallery spotlights, or instead resists their potentially cheapening glare. More often than not, painters will point to the craft of a painting, how it was put together, rather than what it is trying to say or how it makes them feel. It’s a bit like the art world version of kicking the tyres at a car show.

With Tomma Abts’ work one could talk about craft, and how the paintings were produced, for longer than most people might listen, before ever getting around to subjective responses. There is so much to discuss regarding the physicality of Abts’ work, despite the fact that in reproduction it comes across as unremittingly graphic. This work has to be seen in the flesh, as it is only when the viewer is face to face with it that it truly discloses.

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Lya, 2015
acrylic & oil on canvas
48 x 38 cm (18 7/8″ x 14 1/2″)

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

For some reason, whenever I think of Tomma Abts’ work I get the sensation that I am looking at work which is minimal. Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of so many sharp edges, and the general predominance of a single colour in more or less each painting, and the overall equivalence of tone within canvases that have several colours, that leaves the single abiding sensation of having seen something exceptionally understated. This is not the case however. There is a great amount of general activity going on in each of these paintings. Up close, there is a rawness to the masked out edges of straight lines, which betrays the handmade reality of these paintings. There is relative discord too in the colour schemes; no more so than in the piece entitled ‘Oeje’. Then there is the support itself; a slight plumpness in the folds of the canvas around the corners of the stretcher interrupts what, from a distance, looked more like a machine cut panel. This added level of physicality becomes even more apparent on such small canvases than it would on much larger ones, and might threaten to become an irksome feature in itself were it something that the artist had simply overlooked. But it is inconceivable of course that Abts had not considered the consequences of using a material of such thickness. It is the evidence of the handmade that arguably makes this work even more interesting than reproduction might suggest.

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Oeje, 2016
acrylic & oil on canvas
48 x 38 cm (18 7/8″ x 14 1/2″)

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

In her current show at Greengrassi, Abts has introduced metal casting. She has in fact cast one entire canvas in aluminium, another in bronze, and a sizeable section of a third canvas has also been replaced by a bronze cast corner. The full cast pieces are identical in scale to the rest of the series, as is the third hybrid piece including canvas and bronze corner replacement. As interesting as it is to examine the surfaces of the painted canvases, it is in these cast ‘paintings’ that the questions raised by the evident physicality and imperfection of the paintings become thrilling.

The unavoidable physicality of the canvases, the grain of the linen (or perhaps cotton), the folded corners, the slight depression of the surface as the canvas loses its tautness near those corners, and the ever-so-slightly raised edge left against a straight line after the masking tape has been removed; all these things are captured in the cast. It is as though Abts is so eager for us to engage with the physical work itself that she has made it permanent and thus unavoidable. In the two fully cast pieces, ‘Swidde’ and ‘Dako’, the effect of seeing the painting cast in metal is so striking that there is almost a delay before we register the ‘painted’ marks on the surface. In Dako, there are radial motifs which originate from a circular motif just off-centre in the lower right hand section of the ‘canvas’. It is almost a surprise to still see motifs at all given that we find ourselves mainly examining the ways in which the canvas as object has translated into an aluminium cast.

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Dako, 2016
Aluminium cast
48 x 38 cm (18 7/8″ x 14 1/2″)

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

The question arises; if Abts has gone to the trouble of casting paintings in metal, then to what end has all the trademark interplay of colour and shadow been sacrificed to the homogenising effect of metal? This translation from paint to metal, and the forfeiture of the trompe l’oeil shading which makes Abts’ work so print-friendly, is particularly stark in the hybrid canvas / metal piece entitled ‘Menso’, where a seemingly raised line which casts a shadow on the canvas is abruptly taken up by the metal cast, where its shadow disappears. The line becomes more like a splinter under flesh. It is no longer trying to escape the surface.

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Menso, 2016
acrylic & oil on canvas and bronze
48 x 38 cm (18 7/8″ x 14 1/2″)

Photo: Marcus Leith. Courtesy of greengrassi, London.

I could be accused of overcooking the element of a desire on Abts’ part for us to see a raw physicality and the mark of the hand behind hard-edge painting. She has, after all, built a consistent career out of exploring the continuing possibilities of graphic geometric abstraction, and if it looks sharp from a distance, isn’t that enough? To reduce these paintings to their graphic impact alone however, would be to diminish their potential, as paintings, to present us with more than just image making. By casting all or portions of her canvases in metal, Abts seems to be drawing our attention to the work of the paint itself across her entire production. In case we have become complacent with the graphic immediacy of her painted motifs, she has frozen them in dull metal. The effect is to make us return to the painted canvases again in order to see the material behind the image. This physicality is key to why Abts paints and invests so much of her energy in crafting her paintings as objects, and is ultimately why we have to see them up close and in the flesh.

Author: Robbie O'Halloran

Artist and writer working in London

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